THERE ARE MANY Andy Warhols, some at odds with each other. Warhol the Pop artist established a pattern for splicing commercial imagery with fine art traditions that legions of followers continue to emulate. Warhol the social impresario created a world of low-rent glamour at the Factory and then became a curious high-society-pop-celebrity icon, a reticent fixture at Studio 54 who made portraits of the Iranian Shah. Warhol the businessman presented an image of harmony between vanguard art and American capitalism. But there is also Warhol the relentless underground hustler. The experimenter with new mediums. The purveyor of noise. The queer filmmaker who cast an out-of-focus eye on the margins.
This month, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York opens the artist’s first career-spanning survey in the United States since 1989. Smaller Warhol exhibitions and special projects are simultaneously underway at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and even the Ukrainian Museum in New York—an alignment of curatorial activity that points to a pent-up demand to claim a version of Warhol for the present.
Whitney curator Donna de Salvo argues in the exhibition catalogue that Warhol was defined by contradiction. “The ambitious, gay, Byzantine Rite Catholic son of Czechoslovak immigrants born on Pittsburgh’s working-class North Side,” the artist became inextricably linked with a “set of iconic American images” even as his art seeks to destabilize those images with its “repetitions, distortions, camouflages, incongruous colors, and endless recyclings.” The difficulty of grasping who Warhol was and what he was after may have contributed to Art in America’s relatively late embrace of his work. For much of the 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and Claes Oldenburg were the central avatars of Pop in these pages. The balance shifted in 1971, when the Whitney mounted the artist’s midcareer retrospective. A.i.A put Warhol’s face on the cover and devoted a special section to his work. There was another Warhol focus in 1980, and then a third in 1987, just after his death.
In this issue, art historian Alex Kitnick looks back at the magazine’s coverage and highlights “gesture” as a key term for understanding Warhol’s distinctive style of living as a crucial element of his art. Warhol’s public persona—the wig, the leather jackets, the sunglasses—is appealing precisely because it is manifestly fabricated. In a remembrance published in A.i.A. in 1987, critic David Bourdon described watching Warhol in the early 1960s as he “gradually evolved from a sophisticate, who held subscription tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, into a sort of gum-chewing, seemingly naïve teenybopper addicted to the lowest forms of pop culture.” Despite appearing simply to channel the forces of base consumerism all around him, Warhol was also building something new with his calculated gestures, an approach to art and life that could capture both the giddy excess and the sheer horror of his time.
Warhol’s Pop work seems so perfectly of the 1960s that it’s easy to forget his career extended for almost thirty years after that seminal decade. Scholars Richard Meyer and Peggy Phelan present a portfolio of contact sheets from the last years of Warhol’s life, when he was shooting a roll of film nearly every day. These images, part of an exhibition they organized at the Cantor Arts Center, provide a vital glimpse of his life in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, and in particular of his involvement in the gay community on the brink of the AIDS crisis.
Often characterized as the embodiment of his times, Warhol can just as easily be cast as an oracle. The way he recorded and photographed almost everything he did prefigures our collective addiction to social media. Yet if we accept that parallel, as Rob Horning argues here, we should also recognize that Warhol pioneered social media’s desperate business model, in which influencers find themselves continuously on the edge, forced to self-promote or perish. And perhaps this Warhol, an artist who thrived in an environment of protracted instability and cutthroat competition for attention, is our Warhol.