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'Last Decade' reflects how much Andy Warhol turned sellout into high art

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; C01

In the last 10 years of his life and career, Andy Warhol sold out. He jumped headfirst into the crassest of pop culture: He appeared on junk TV such as "The Love Boat," turned out junk TV himself ("Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes" for MTV), applauded and created celebrities in his Interview magazine and then made junk portraits of any of them who would pay.

This "junk" turns out to have made Warhol one of the most important and compelling artists of the 20th century. That's the artist now on display in a show called "Warhol: The Last Decade," on tour to the Baltimore Museum of Art from the Milwaukee Art Museum.

By the time he died in 1987 at age 58, Warhol had turned selling out into his principal art form. He held a mirror up to our sold-out commodity culture by selling himself as a cultural commodity. This launched a major movement in art. (Last year, an excellent show called "Pop Life," on tour from the Tate Modern in London, made this argument in detail.) Warhol on "The Love Boat" leads to Jeff Koons's radical experiment with hard-core shots of his wedded bliss with porn star Cicciolina. The diamond dust that Warhol sprinkled on the most sold-out of his portraits foreshadows Damien Hirst's diamond-studded skull, price-tagged at $100 million. Warhol's ads for Coca-Cola and Absolut Vodka are just a step away from Takashi Murakami's purses for Louis Vuitton.

The Baltimore exhibition gives a hint of what I'm talking about -- but you have to hunt for it.

At the very tail end of the show, there's an extra little room that curators are calling the "Last Decade Lounge." It is dolled up with beanbags, Lucite chairs, copies of Interview and a vintage television that loops a 1985 episode of Warhol's "Fifteen Minutes," featuring Debbie Harry, Bryan Adams and a throng of lesser lights. The walls are lined with photos of Warhol schmoozing his famous fans and clients, while a timeline records the rest of Warhol's public presence in this era, from his nights at Studio 54 to when he paints a race car at Le Mans.

All this is meant as postscript to the exhibition, but I think it needs to be seen first, if we're to understand the 50 "straight," fine-art paintings that come before it.

Those paintings -- big, imposing and often very strange -- feel like Warhol's reaction to the creative sellout that was going on around them in his studio and life. It's almost as though the artist himself couldn't quite get a grip on where his most important, most radically "performative" art was leading. So, like many more traditional artists, he made paintings to help him work through his feelings and thoughts.

The show opens with two big 1978 self-portraits, in Warhol's classic photo-silkscreen style, that superimpose the same image of the artist several times, until he's lost in a swirl of himself. It's not a bad metaphor for how he might have felt at the time, overwhelmed with the person and persona he'd become, and aware that that ever-multiplying, mass-produced persona, however baffling it might be to him and others, was the real subject and stuff of his art.

The artist as work of art

It feels like Warhol realized that his paintings had come to matter less, as important contemporary art, than the fact that they were by him. And that very fact of artist-as-the-work-of-art -- that metafact, if you like -- comes to be what his later fine-art paintings address.

Near those blurred self-portraits sits another work from that same year: one of the famous Marilyns that Warhol conceived at the start of his career, but now reproduced four times across a single canvas, in negative, in barely distinguishable charcoals and blacks. The original movie-star image has become barely legible, and fourfold repetition has diluted any uniqueness it might once have had -- and yet it still has the same talismanic power as when Warhol first presented it, because it's still by him. In fact, the image seems to have almost more power than before, because we know that, repeated and nearly invisible, it really ought to have none at all.

Warhol recognizes that he has arrived at a place where everything he makes or does -- even an appearance on "The Love Boat" -- will come to count as significant art. He tests that proposition by trying to cancel out an iconic early work, and watches as he fails -- and realizes that, by failing in his canceling, he's succeeded in making art as good as any he's made.

The following year, Warhol ran the same test on a doubly iconic work: his own 1963 rendition of the Mona Lisa, this time reproduced 15 times in disappearing white on white. Same result: A Leonardo touched by Warhol, however wan and bleached-out, is an unstoppable force.

So, for that matter, is the pee of a great artist, or even of his studio assistants. Warhol's "Oxidation Paintings," which he began to make in 1978, started life as an even field of metallic paint laid down on canvas. That bronze- or copper-colored paint then got oxidized to greens and browns when it received the urine of denizens of Warhol's studio -- mostly men, but with the occasional woman squatting for the sake of art. These works are a successful, fine-looking riff on the splashy last-gasp abstraction being made in paint at that same time, by erstwhile superstars such as Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. Despite their origins in bathroom humor, that is, Warhol's pictures manage to function perfectly well as fine art.

Once again, Warhol pushes against the boundaries of artmaking, and finds himself crashing through to the other side. You can hate the oxidation paintings, but it doesn't make much sense to deny their status as art. They come from the hand and mind -- or at least the body and studio -- of a certifiably great artist.

Something similar happens in 1983, when an Italian yarn manufacturer pays Warhol to make a series of images of its goods. Warhol first photographs a tangle of yarn, then silkscreens those images into what seems to be a spoof of Jackson Pollock as a salable product. The silkscreens are that, but they aren't merely that: They also read as excellent new pictures that take Pollock forward into Warhol land, where there's simply no gap between the salable and art.

Incredibly, the Warhol magic goes on to do its work even on much less promising of materials.

Un-camouflaged

In 1986, Warhol takes on camouflage, a pattern whose sole function in life is to remain absolutely unseeable. In Warhol's hands, it stops melding in with anything at all. Instead, it pops into the cultural foreground as "Camouflage," an important work of abstract art by a great artist -- the most to-be-seen object imaginable.

The "formless" Rorschach blots that got squeezed out huge in Warhol's studio in 1984 undergo a similar transformation. The whole point of such a blot is that it functions as a blank screen, with so few significant properties of its own that we can fill it with any we choose. But as Warhol's "Rorschach," it's not empty at all. It's full of artfulness, worthy of being taken in for precisely what it is, and only for that: Once it's on the museum wall, you read it, you don't read into it. You couldn't change an inch of its surface without doing violence to a great artist's great creation -- and ruining your investment as well.

Under all these droll experiments in pushing art as far as it can go, and beyond, there is a scream of pain. This show may look cheery or goofy at first sight, but much of its work leaves the impression that Warhol, who had a conservative streak a mile wide, cannot believe what he's wrought.

The Rorschachs could as easily be cross sections through a diseased brain. The camouflage inevitably conjures warfare and hunting and death. Near those two blurred self-portraits at the beginning of the show is another doubled portrait of the artist, with a skull: The jester knows what is in store for him, and thinks that maybe he deserves it.

And then there's one other take on self: a 10-silkscreen grid by Warhol, of Warhol . . . but with another man's hands around his throat, squeezing. Warhol does his best to kill himself off. But he knows, deep down, that he has become the undead of art.

Warhol: The Last Decade

runs through Jan. 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. Call 443-573-1700 or visit http://www.artbma.org.

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