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Why Andy Warhol retrospective has special resonance in the Instagram age


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: The first major Andy Warhol retrospective organized by an American museum in 30 years has brought record-breaking attendance to the Whitney Museum in New York.

As part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas, Jeffrey Brown examines Warhol's particular relevance to our social media times.

Jeffrey Brown: Campbell's soup cans, so familiar as consumer products, and, after Andy Warhol, as art objects, we can almost overlook Warhol's achievement, remaking how we see the world, in ways that continue to this day.

Donna De Salvo: He still feels like an artist for the 21st century. And I think, in part, it's because of this understanding of the world of images that we live in.

Jeffrey Brown: Donna De Salvo has put together the exhibition, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, more than 350 works in a variety of media, now at New York's Whitney Museum, where De Salvo is senior curator.

It's a chance to get beyond Warhol's own 15 minutes of fame and see him whole.

Donna De Salvo: I think what often gets lost is the understanding of him as an artist, as a maker of things, and someone who really had this incredible understanding of visual culture, but also the history of art itself.

And so there's a seriousness to Warhol's project which I think is often overlooked, in part because we know this man with a funny wig and the sort of persona of...

Jeffrey Brown: And the celebrity.

Donna De Salvo: And the celebrity. And all those things seem incredibly superficial.

Jeffrey Brown: Here, we see a Warhol most don't know, a 1948 watercolor of the living room in the Pittsburgh house he grew up in, child of working-class Catholic immigrants from Slovakia.

Later, Warhol would appropriate the religious imagery.

Donna De Salvo: Just think about his understanding of the icon. Of course, the first is really Marilyn, and he does Marilyn on a gold background.

Jeffrey Brown: There's a wall of golden shoes, from the period when Warhol was a successful graphic designer and illustrator in New York.

Commercial culture and fine art came together in the early '60s, Coke bottles, celebrity icons, reproduced with variations of color and form.

Donna De Salvo: Warhol reflects the incredible contradictions of America and American culture, which is our strong desire for innovation and the equal desire to conform.

Jeffrey Brown: But did he expose it or celebrate it?

Donna De Salvo: Both. Both.

Jeffrey Brown: Isn't that the Warhol question, of whether he's critiquing capitalism or celebrating it?

Donna De Salvo: Yes.

He leaves that up to the viewer. And a lot of critics were -- you know, felt that his work was purely a celebration of capitalism. I don't think so, because I think, again he -- it's ambiguous. There's an ambiguity within it.

Jeffrey Brown: He brought to eerie life disaster scenes and race riots, put lipstick and rouge on a giant Chairman Mao.

And Warhol also worked hard to construct his own image. He surrounded himself with celebrities of the day in the so-called factory where he and a team made the work, and by night at the flashy Studio 54 nightclub.

Said to be shy in person, he played at being naive and shallow, though his friends knew better. He was a gay man growing up in a more conservative era.

Is it fair to say that this exhibition brings that out more than we have seen, more than he showed, for example?

Donna De Salvo: Oh, absolutely, because the work of the 1950s, which is where you see the more overt homoerotic imagery, well, that was never shown in Warhol's lifetime.

Jeffrey Brown: De Salvo points to coded works, such as the 13 Most Wanted Men series, and the famous Silver Marlon portrait from 1963.

Donna De Salvo: There's issues of desire that are evident in the work. He's the antihero on some level, but he's also this beautiful man.

Jeffrey Brown: Warhol loved the camera, still and moving, as an image-making tool, and here, too, played with conventions, making experimental films and videos, and subverting the Hollywood screen test by asking subjects, including Edie Sedgwick, his most famous muse, to do absolutely nothing, creating a new kind of visual portrait.

And he pioneered an idea that would become very familiar today, documenting life moment by moment.

Claire Henry is the assistant curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project also at the Whitney.

Claire Henry: He started to film people that we would film with our iPhones, right, so his friends, people he worked with, his colleagues, his paramours, all of these people in his circles.

Jeffrey Brown: You're seeing his early films as like our version of social media?

Claire Henry: Absolutely, yes, and they function in that way, the very earliest ones. He did document everything, and not just on film, but also on Polaroids, on still photography, on audiotapes. He was a mass collector, an amasser of information and stuff.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1968, Valerie Solanas, a writer and radical feminist activist, shot and nearly killed Warhol. Many critics saw Warhol's artistic influence wane in the '70s and '80s work that followed, the portraits, often commissioned, of friends, stars and political figures, the celebrity focus of "Interview" magazine, which he co-founded, even an MTV series, "Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes."

Woman: "Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes" with Grace Jones.

Jeffrey Brown: But the exhibition makes a case for his continuing artistic vitality and experimentation, including a turn to abstraction, as in these Rorschach images, and a playful fascination with art history.

George Condo, a leading contemporary artist who studied and later got to know Warhol, showed us two large canvases in which Warhol used the imagery of Leonardo da Vinci, one with 63 barely visible Mona Lisas, the other a camouflaged Last Supper.

George Condo: What he loved is the way the randomness and the chance aspect of where the camouflage will fall, and how it will shade the different things, and how it just turns out that Christ is here, and Judas is in this sort of purple tone, and then all this other work that's going on.

He somehow claims ownership of the Last Supper in his work by using it as the substance of his painting.

Jeffrey Brown: Why is he still so important, I mean, even for contemporary artists today?

George Condo: It's the way the image burns a memory into your brain, that he found a way to get it so you could walk out of there and remember what you saw. And it's not going anywhere. It's never going to go anywhere. It's just there.

Jeffrey Brown: Andy Warhol died in 1987, at age 58, after complications from gallbladder surgery.

As the exhibition makes clear, in our own age of Instagram, a reality-TV-star-turned-president, the blending of high and low, the ideas and imagery represented in his work are still very much with us.

Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again is on through the end of March.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Judy Woodruff: Starting in May, you can see the Warhol exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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