As if to second that opinion, the Hirshhorn is also opening a major exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Shadows,” the first complete installation of a 102-part work that occupies almost an entire floor of the museum. The 1978-79 series, laid out in one long, almost 450-foot ribbon of color, repeats with subtle and sometimes radical variations a single, abstract design supposedly based on a photograph of a shadow. It shows Warhol covering his high-art flank, assuming the prerogatives, including the megalomaniac ambition of the artist with a capital A that he consistently claimed never to be.
Taken together, the two exhibitions might remove any lingering doubts about Warhol. But the paradox of Warhol is that even as you become convinced, yet again, that he was indisputably great, Warhol himself disputes your opinion. His most enduring artistic act may be that he will never let his own greatness rest as settled fact. His consistent, unbroken insistence that he was naïve, superficial, an intellectual void, a cynic with his eyes focused only on dollar signs, undermines his oeuvre from beyond the grave, in a maddening but brilliant final joke on the very idea of posthumous relevance.
The National Gallery survey focuses on works Warhol made in response to, or using visual elements of the news, from early, hand-sketched mock-ups of newspaper front pages in the late 1950s to the enormous 1981 triptych “Fate Presto,” three heroically scaled silk screens seen for the first time in the United States.
If the early newspaper drawings feel a bit sophomoric — they are filled with misspellings and rendered in what curator Molly Donovan argues is an intentionally rough style — the “Fate Presto” panels, by their size and somber, black-and-white palette, have an almost sacred seriousness. They reproduce the front page of an Italian newspaper as it cries out “Hurry Up,” a plaintive cry for relief for victims of a devastating earthquake. One panel is rendered in straightforward black and white, a second is almost all white, the third almost all black. Late in his career, after recycling tabloid inanities as high art, Warhol seems sobered by the actual news in a newspaper. He is earnest, even somber, acknowledging in one panel that the news can be so glaringly urgent that it is blinding, and in another so impenetrably sad that it threatens the mind like a black hole.