A text panel near the opening of the Hirshhorn’s “Andy Warhol: Shadows” only continues the ambiguities. Of this enormous installation, he says: “Someone asked me if I thought they were art and I said no. You see, the opening party had a disco. I guess that makes them disco décor.” At the end of the same passage, however, he says offhand, “I always like to see if the art across the street is better than mine.” A small acknowledgment that of course he was making art, he was ferociously competitive and ambitious as an artist, and he knew that the value of his art was based on elaborate intellectual games, including the denial that it was art.
Donovan, the curator of the National Gallery show, says the proof is always in the work itself. And “Shadows” is a stunning work, a serial summation of the possibilities present in abstract painting. It would be too generous to compare it to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but the ambition is similar, a summation of all the possibilities that can be wrung out of a simple idea, exhausting and exalting them in the process. Panel by panel, you think of names in circulation when Warhol made the series. Thick green paint drawn with a mop suggests Roy Lichtenstein, mocking abstraction with his own pop art reference to paint oozing off a brush. Others suggest skin tones, or military olive drab, or the color juxtapositions of Josef Albers, or the black-on-black anguish of darker expressionists.
The whole cycle is so long that you feel sometimes like you’re taking a walk outdoors, waiting to round the bend of a hill and see if all the tiresomely repetitive beauty continues ever same. And there is also something aggressive about it, childish almost, as if the artist set out to lick every dinner plate at an enormous banquet table, to claim every spot for himself.
The two shows are a boon to have in one spot at the same time. Before seeing the Hirshhorn exhibition, it’s worth committing one detail from the National Gallery to your mental memory. In the lower left of the image reproduced in the newspaper painting “129 Die in Jet,” made in 1962, is a beautifully painted area that plays with the blurriness of the original image, which would have been transmitted to the New York Mirror electronically, with subsequent loss of detail and distortion. Warhol finds a wealth of purely abstract beauty in this little patch of paint. It is also eerily reminiscent of many areas of the much later and very different “Shadows,” where the same gestures feel a bit like a character retrieved by a novelist many hundreds of pages after the reader lost track of him in the accumulation of narrative and detail. It is a reminder of the steady hand and persistence of vision that traces through Warhol’s oversized oeuvre with frightening clarity.
Until Jan. 2 at the National Gallery of Art. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.
Andy Warhol: Shadows
Through Jan. 15 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 202-633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.