NEW YORK — “Start here,” reads the program guide, a helpful arrow aimed at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s fifth floor. But landing at the threshold of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” the first full-blooded retrospective of the artist since 1989 at the Museum of Modern Art, feels a lot like starting at the end.
Maybe it’s the enormous, 35-foot camouflage canvas that greets you here, made in 1986, just a year before Warhol died due to complications from gall-bladder surgery. It’s a sign, and a deliberate one: The Warhol you know so well — the Marilyns and Elvises, the soup cans and Brillo Boxes — won’t be the main event.
It’s jarring: An artist so pervasive he feels almost intimate, whether through his radioactive influence on generations of art or his perpetual presence in the culture at large, made by opening salvo suddenly unfamiliar. Warhol surrounds us like wallpaper, maybe as he always intended, though it’s been years since he demanded our attention for anything other than auction results (Warhol sales at auction peaked in 2014 at $568.7 million total, according to Bloomberg, dwindling to a mere $231 million last year).
Unfamiliarity is surely the goal here for Whitney senior curator Donna De Salvo, who’s assembled some 350 works, from the artist’s first to his very last. That alone breaks ground. MoMA’s Warhol show, not two years after his death, billed itself as completist but fell short: Two-thirds of it, observed the art historian Charles Stuckey, was devoted to Warhol’s first eight years as a painter, shuffling all but a portion of his works made post-1968 — nearly two decades’ worth — to one side.
Warhol had become “a prisoner of his early success,” Stuckey observed, and we’ve kept him mostly locked up tight ever since. Here, De Salvo breaks open the box. Standing in front of “Camouflage,” there’s a destabilizing push-pull at the threshold that appears to cleave the show neatly in two: To the left, all that’s familiar, a grid of Campbell’s soup cans calling you home; to the right, the unknown, the late-stage Warhol who, by the time of his death, had been all but dismissed as shtick.
This exhibition’s project is bigger than simply defying the Warhol brand. It knits together the wildly divergent career of one of the world’s most important artists, and affirms his significance in the here and now. A contrarian whose refusal to separate the exclusivity of high culture from mass consumption — whether of product, lurid sensationalism, or celebrity — Warhol was as prescient, original, and eternally relevant as anyone could possibly be.
De Salvo first disrupts, then reassures, ushering the viewer along a comforting tour of Warhol’s early days. You start with those 1962 greatest hits — “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” “192 Dollar Bills,” “Green Coca-Cola Bottles” — before falling back to 1948, where Warhol’s first painting shown in public, a small, dark rendering of his family’s living room in Pittsburgh, awaits.
By the early 1950s, Warhol would be one of the most successful commercial illustrators in New York, a formative experience that honed his skills as a draftsman and helped shape his nascent vision. Art and commerce were conflated from the start for him, and the show roots us in that genesis as we find the young Warhol’s dual life as illustrator and gallery artist starting to coalesce.
In the next gallery, an array of early drawings vividly grounds Warhol firmly in queer culture: close-up drawings of male genitals and dreamy young men, a record of his obsessive near-harassment of the author Truman Capote, which formed the basis of his first-ever gallery show at the Hugo Gallery in 1952. A seductive display of gilded shoe drawings, most dedicated to celebrities — Mae West, Diana Vreeland — includes one, Christine Jorgensen, that stands out. Jorgensen was the first American to be public about her gender reassignment surgery, from man to woman.
Those glimmers of gay identity here set a tone: The silvery multiple images of Marlon Brando (“Silver Marlon,” 1963) and Elvis Presley (“Triple Elvis [Ferus Type],” 1963), seem as much crushy and covetous as critical of fame obsession; his “Most Wanted Men” (1964), mug shots of FBI fugitives, now a double-entendre.
Even as Warhol ascended toward stardom, he remained an outsider. It helped make him a sharp observer, of mass culture’s tawdry fascinations and highbrow pretense. Those collide abruptly in an overpowering room that holds an array of his “Death and Disaster” paintings, as potent a selection of works as you’ll see anywhere.
This is an artist working at the absolute apex of his power. All made in an intense burst in 1963, the work is overwhelming, intense, breathtaking, and jarringly frank about a transforming social order: “Orange Car Crash 14 Times” amplifies, and decries, the lascivious fascination with tabloid calamity; “Mustard Race Riot,” a repeated image of police dogs attacking black protestors during a civil rights protest, thrusts Warhol into the most urgent social conflict of his day and connects him to the long history of art with political heft.
What both paintings also do, though, with their vast, parallel fields of uninterrupted color, is demand that the old make way for the new: Critic Clement Greenberg, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism, had declared color-field painting — beyond gesture, serene fields of pure tone — to be the next (and, ahem, final) stage of painting. Warhol ruptured that continuum, and violently. He almost single-handedly yanked serious art back from abstraction to the visceral reality — urgent, violent, repeated — of the world. Warhol wiped that slate clean, and eventually himself along with it: In 1965, he retired from painting for a while, turning toward film, performance, and large-scale Factory-based happenings, but that’s another story, and one the show tucks off to the side.
Timing is everything, Warhol himself might have said, and having an expiring avant-garde ripe for disruption surely helped him on his ascent. (In the ’50s, Warhol’s love of drawing people and things, not to mention his queerness, would have made him an outlier amid the robust machismo of Abstract Expressionism’s heyday, and made his success doubly satisfying). But making way is something Warhol would, of course, come to know well. For all his prescience and influence — could there be a Jeff Koons without Andy Warhol? Maybe, but I doubt it — Warhol found himself on the wane as an artist through the ’70s and ’80s. He found himself a camp mascot for a cadre of the indulgently rich and famous (his commissioned portraits of just those people are wisely sequestered in a small gallery on the main floor), a parody of himself parroting his own slogans about fame on an episode of “The Love Boat.”
It’s hard to imagine this now, particularly given his urgent relevance in this era of rabid sensation, misinformation, ubiquitous social media, and fame for its own sake. We’re left to wonder what Warhol — who blurred lines between private selves and public performance and declared, with works like his screen tests (many of which are here, and on 16mm film no less) that fame could be built as much as achieved — would do with our YouTube/Instagram/Snapchat universe.
Warhol kept working, haunted by the popular notion that his best days as an artist were behind him. A small array of three “Shadow (Diamond Dust)” paintings, from 1978, come with a quip that’s both cheeky and sad: “The reviews will be bad — my reviews always are,” Warhol said. “But the reviews of the party will be terrific.”
As you drift into those later years — Warhol collaborating with Jean-Michel Basquiat, maybe in part to revive his tired brand, though they had natural communion on the subjects of capitalism, politics, and celebrity — something starts to lift. A series of commissioned portraits of New York City drag queens — unknowns, by direction of the patron — have a rawness and urgency that the mawkish celebrity portraits lack: Warhol becoming less the wind-up version of himself for popular consumption than the one he’d choose himself.
Nearby, a vast, shimmering abstract painting, “Oxidation Piece,” from 1978, engulfs; Warhol made it, and others, by preparing his canvas with gold or copper paint, on which he then poured urine, or had friends or assistants urinate on it. It’s alarmingly visceral and unapologetically abject for an artist whose habit was to observe the world from a sly remove. It’s also disarmingly beautiful, greens and golds melting into each other in liquid forms, like a sea churning at golden hour as the tide changes. It’s the least-Warhol Warhol I’ve ever seen.
By the time you reach the final gallery — the least populated, when I was there, the crowds all gathered around the greatest hits, as though for warmth — you start to wonder whose retrospective this is. Two towering paintings stand at opposite ends of the gallery, both of them Rorschach tests from 1984. One is shimmering gold, the other black. You can read them, and I did, as Warhol’s reckoning with his looming mortality: On one hand, a dark sentinel, embodying the artist’s obsession with death (being shot by a former acolyte left him permanently afflicted, physically and psychologically); on the other, a beacon into an eternal light.
In between them lies the most gorgeous Warhol — and one of the most beautiful works, period — you’ll find: “Sixty-three White Mona Lisas,” from 1979. It’s exactly what it says and so much more. Splayed along 35 feet of canvas, an opaque wash of pale paint renders the Da Vinci piece in flat tones of ghostly white. It shifts with every step you take, images fading and rising with each new glance.
It’s a coda, surely, to the his long-ago piece “30 Are Better Than One,” a cheeky grid of the same painting from 1964 made small in gritty, sloppy black. This is Warhol past the critique of old-guard notions of singular genius — he is, by now, old-guard himself — and reaching for something larger, beatific, transcendent. It’s a revealing near-final act: Warhol reassessing himself, away from the glare of celebrity and fame. Warhol, more than any other artist I know, made art for all of us, and we consumed it, and him, with a sometimes callous gluttony. In the end, I think, he finally gave himself permission to make art for himself.
Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again
At the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through March 31. 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org