The Metropolitan Museum of Art is unsurpassed at presenting more than 50 centuries of work. I go there constantly, seeing things over and over, better than I’ve ever seen them before. Yet even we who love the Met know that with notable exceptions it has pooh-poohed, misconstrued, or messed up the art of the second half of the twentieth century pretty much since it was made. Now it’s doing it again — but worse.
There’s a shallow, pandering fecklessness to the pseudo-extravaganza “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years.” Its underlying idea is so shopworn and flighty it can come as a surprise only to the Met: Andy Warhol’s art and what curators Marla Prather and Mark Rosenthal deem “the Warhol phenomenon” are really, really influential. Prather wonders, “Is there anyone who’s had a bigger influence?” Rosenthal offers, “I’m starting to think of Warhol’s impact like a meteor striking the Earth.” To prove what anyone who’s looked at art in the past 40 years already knows, they brought together about 50 artworks by Warhol, then installed them with approximately 100 works by other artists. Nearly all the other artists are usual suspects from the aesthetic-economic auction complex, blue-chippers like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, John Currin, Douglas Gordon, Anselm Kiefer, and Francesco Vezzoli. (All of whom just happen to show with Gagosian Gallery. Why not subtitle the show “Larry’s Got Talent”? Or “Comfortably Numb.”)
“Regarding Warhol” has the unusual distinction of being a very bad show with very good work. The exhibition takes fantastic advantage of the Met’s space and reach. Almost every Warhol is first-rate and in excellent condition. Yet you wish instead of sections about celebrity and appropriation, the show had taken on more abstract but far deeper Warholian content like hoarding, neediness, and disembodiment. After all, this is the artist who said, “Sex is so abstract.” There’s barely anything here about some of his favorite tools, like the tape recorder and the Polaroid instant camera. Why not have the courage of your own convictions and include Martha Stewart, who utterly followed Andy’s footsteps around the businesses of décor, branding, and endorsement? The show avoids great but problematic work like Warhol’s “cock drawings” (or the Brigid Polk print of Jasper Johns’s penis owned by Warhol). Nor does it focus more on the 50 to 100 portrait commissions he did annually for around $50,000 apiece. Instead, everything looks crisp, way too crowded, and predictable: This is more like an auction sales room or a high roller’s private museum than an exhibition.
The show defangs everything. A Bruce Nauman neon work flashing the word DEATH, included because Andy also dealt with death, comes off as a bauble. A Basquiat skull-head is on hand, because skulls equal death, too. A Matthew Barney setup photo of someone with a gun? Yup, death again. So it goes, for ten long galleries. In the section grouped by celebrity, or maybe celebrity lips, near Warhol’s portraits of Elvis, Marilyn, and Brando, we see sexy lips in portraits by Chuck Close, Elizabeth Peyton, and Karen Kilimnik. Cindy Sherman is great, but the only reason she’s here (other than the fact that dull curators can’t do a show without her) is that she’s made a few pictures where she looks like a movie star, and Andy liked those sorts of people too. One gallery shows art of cars and gas stations. Ed Ruscha’s burning Standard station is near John Baldessari’s painting of a car and a Barney picture of five cars. By the last galleries I was so dispirited I’d look at the first work I’d see and predict what would come next. Cory Arcangel’s floating-clouds video? Warhol’s floating silver clouds. Murakami’s flower paintings? Flowers. (How’d ya know?) I don’t think I stumbled on a single surprising juxtaposition or one that deepened meaning.
By reducing everything this way, “Regarding Warhol” completely negates Andy’s radical way of making art, his astonishing ideas about color and skidding images, how he made art seem easy and being gay great, the ways he transformed commercial art into high art and high art into mass entertainment, how he turned himself into an icon, an anti-hero, and an ambience. The rest of the artists fare no better.
Everyone agrees that Andy is in the air we breathe. Yet artists whose work seems to resemble his also breathed other air. A number of the artists here defy the show’s conceit and insist that they weren’t influenced by Andy. Alex Katz’s early ideas about color and figures on flat grounds precede Warhol’s. In the catalogue, Katz jokes, “Good artists steal, and [Warhol is] a good artist.” Vija Celmins says she was “not interested” in what Warhol was up to back when she was making her own early black-and-white images of subjects like race riots from magazine covers. Though Chuck Close says Andy “was a great painter,” Katz says he was “a terrific graphic artist” but “he couldn’t paint.”
Last week, the Andy Warhol Foundation announced that it’s selling off its huge holdings of Andy’s work, converting itself from an estate into a cash fund that will give artists’ grants. It’ll effectively be doing what the Metropolitan purports to be trying here: making real, meaningful connections between Warhol’s legacy and new, vital work. Meanwhile, up at the Met, what we’re left with is a cynical gimmick to bring in the crowds and spruce up the museum’s image. Warhol, who loved commerce, will give it all away, whereas the Met, which is supposed to be above it all, will be raking it in. In the future, every museum will do fifteen Warhol shows.
Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through December 31.
*This article originally appeared in the September 24, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.