The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is set to open Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again, a stunning retrospective that presents the artist’s large-scale compositions, installations, portraits, sculptures and films. The title of this exhibition suggests something relational about Warhol, which sounds odd at first because he had been so well connected. Since moving to New York City in 1949, he became the most sought-after commercial illustrator in advertising design, where images and their subsequent repetition in print bridged perfectly with popular culture.
During his career in newsprint Warhol discovered the silkscreen, where he was able to insert news images — often sensational or grotesque — and then embellish them through the process of reprinting. Multiplicity underscored pictorial meaning within American culture such that Warhol’s phrase “over and over” became its own cliché. Thus, Andy Warhol’s ambition to make the same painting over and over was an evasive critique of American Modern art: Abstract Expressionism and the figurative works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
By the time he passed away in 1987, countless artists and celebrities claimed to have known him. And yet he was rich, poor, popular, marginalized, loved, disliked, a celebrity, an outsider, a success and a failure, to mention only a few of the prevalent characterization. Warhol was a maverick who caught the attention of so many different people for so many different reasons. He sidestepped every obstacle that appeared before him, because there was always something and nothing to say.
A small watercolor titled “Living Room” introduces this volumetric display. Created around 1948, Warhol presents a portrait of a deserted living room that tilts toward the viewer. The wooden chairs, the couch, the floor, the lamp shades and the furniture coverings appear asymmetric and unsettled. Within this restricted space, Warhol’s gestural hand leaves an atmosphere that appears disordered, as if the occupants had left in haste. When seen by itself, this watercolor appears to be an early study. However it is indeed a foreshadow of his career that unfolds throughout this show.
The drawings that follow in the first part of this show alternate evenly between erotica, and advertisements for women’s shoes. Across these representations, square sheets of gold metal leaf are collaged into pen-and-ink drawings that give these representations and elegant, dreamy luster. By the late 1950s, however, Warhol focused more on representing common objects of desire such as cats, cartoons and covers of newspaper dailies.
By utilizing the cues of mass production, Warhol gradually established his art as a site of common ground, in order to level with the viewer. Before 1960, when Warhol had been unable to find a gallery to represent his art, he sought to connect his work with the general public, a larger population that was more than what the art world could accommodate. In 1962 the cross currents began to move swiftly away from American Modernism. Artforum, for instance, had opened up in San Francisco before relocating to Los Angeles in 1965 and then, finally, to New York City by the end of the decade.
Warhol’s initial drawings of Campbell’s soup cans covering Coke and Heinz ketchup bottles carried their own subversive undertones. However these were quickly displaced by the artist’s representation of everyday objects, because they appeared so regular and mundane. A larger composition titled “Roll of Bills” (1962) is even more eye-catching, showing a thick bundle of dollar bills, held together by a thin, red rubber band. By depicting these objects of desire, ambition and aspiration, Andy Warhol appealed to a set of shared longings — freedom and financial success.
Despite having lived and worked in New York City for over a decade, Warhol could not surpass his reputation as a commercial illustrator. In 1962, Irving Blum gave the artist his first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, California. With this risky decision, Blum showed Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962) — an installation of 32 panels, each measuring 20 x 16 inches. From A to B and Back Again not only presents this breathless original, but also the artist’s other gigantic canvases of soda bottles, dollar bills, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, the Statue of Liberty, Mao Tse Tung, and the Mona Lisa, to name a few. Subtle surprises appear in each piece. When looking at the red, cursive script seen in the 6-foot tall silkscreened canvas titled “S&H Green Stamps” for instance, the logo blurs when seen from a distance and appears to show the word ‘sex’ — revealing Warhol’s interest in camouflage.
Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again re-introduces the public to the work of an artist, who has been most known through cash-and-carry reproductions of his art. America and its culture of irony, as seen through the popular press, quickly became Warhol’s subject that also led him to repetitively reproduce violent events such as suicides, riots and fatal car accidents. The monumental scale of his paintings seen here is surprising because the sheer number of these large-scale paintings has been far less known. Although Andy Warhol received his first solo show in New York City at the Stable Gallery in November of 1962, history had already been made. It would soon start over again.