The exhibition also includes videos, television projects and “screen tests,” films of minor art world celebrities caught apparently unawares, reading the newspaper. It follows Warhol’s career from beginning to end, including his own appearance in the headlines after being shot by an addled groupie in 1968, and again in 1987 when he died too young at 59, on the cusp of a new age of virtual news and electronic communication. It is a powerful, synoptic view of the artist’s career, but also focused enough that Warhol’s prolific and sometimes too-protean production never overwhelms.
It outlines, clearly and coherently, the basic, shifting moves of the Warholian aesthetic. In the first room, two side-by-side paintings from 1961-62 are both based on the same front page of the New York Post, announcing on November 3, 1961, that Princess Margaret of Great Britain had produced male issue. But the two “A Boy for Meg” panels are markedly different. One reproduces quite precisely the original newspaper page, as it appears in a nearby glass case; the other is sketchier, with the headlines left incomplete, or perhaps rubbed out or erased, in a deliberate effort produce a self-consciously ghostly, or “artsy” rendition.
The pairing reproduces the basic outlines of a classic anecdote from Warhol’s 1960 autobiographical work, “Popism: The Warhol Sixties,” in which the artist recounts how he once showed a close friend two paintings of a Coke bottle, one done with abstract flourishes, the other “just a stark, outlined Coke bottle in black and white.” He let his friend decide between the two, and the response was adamant: the stark, clean, seemingly exact copy of the bottle, its trademark shape and logo, was far better. Forget the artsy details, go with the commercial art clarity.
There is a double erasure in this anecdote. Warhol shifts a fundamental aesthetic choice away from himself, as if he decided to be a pop artist because someone else told him to go that direction. And he underscores a deeper paradox also present in the “A Boy for Meg” paintings: There is actually less of the real Warhol present in the painting that seems to bear more traces of an artist crafting, smudging and manipulating his material. The erasure that defines Warhol is the more complete erasure of his presence in the painting that seems to be merely a copy of the original.
That basic game sets the stage for the rest of the show, throughout which the visitor is constantly invited to fill in the details that Warhol claims aren’t there. “I’m going to look into the mirror and see nothing,” Warhol once said. “People are always calling me a mirror, and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?” This is Warhol in his teasing mode, but also remarkably astute about how his work never seems to take a definitive stance.
Certainly there’s some kind of political commentary lurking in a portfolio of silkscreens and text he created in 1968, in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Flash — November 22, 1963” uses a reproduction of the news bulletins from just before the shooting through the funeral of Lee Harvey Oswald three days later. The news is shown as an accumulation, seemingly in real-time, of ever more horrifying details. The words are printed on wrappers that contain silk screen images, which maintain a scrupulous inscrutability about Warhol’s real feelings. In one case he reproduces an advertisement for an Italian carbine, a gun on sale for $12.78. In another he superimposes a movie clap-board over the face of Kennedy, as if to underline his own fatigue with the collective emotion and drama that surrounded the death of the president.