Whitney Museum of American Art, 400 pp., $70.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
In the 1970s, impecunious and unknown, the only way I could get into the legendary Studio 54 was under the sponsorship, so to speak, of someone older and more established. The velvet rope parted only one time; it wasn’t the night Bianca Jagger rode across the dance floor on a white horse, but it was close.
There was a balcony where you could go if you were seriously tripping, as I was, to get out of the mayhem. That night the rows of theater seats were empty except for a few couples making out in the back. I collapsed into a chair. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I became aware of someone else in my row. There he was, solitary in the shadows, standing with his arms crossed and one hand to his chin, staring at the revelry below. The trademark wig, in the pulsing light of the dance floor, looked not so much silver as made of straw. He glanced at me briefly, seemed about to speak, changed his mind. I was of no interest to him, just another stoned kid.
Andy Warhol combined social and pictorial intelligence in a way not seen in this country since John Singer Sargent. In one of the most unexpected artistic transformations of the last century, he found a way to make a highly synthetic, semimechanized kind of painting feel authentic. His attitude and posture, his public persona, and his forays into filmmaking and other media were radical in the world of high art, but his aesthetic inclinations were more traditional. They harked back to, and partially bridged, two widely divergent tendencies in American art: social realism and abstraction, the Yankee peddler and the Transcendentalist.
Warhol was many things, but at heart he was a salon artist with acute instincts for social engagement. The complexity of his persona, the sociocultural upheaval of the 1960s that he helped to advance, and his impact on generations of activists and aesthetes have been discussed at length. And while central to the Warhol mythology, they are not the reason why his best paintings still pull us into their aura. We’re looking at them today because of their unique amalgamation of photographic facticity with a painterly directness and stylishness that stops just short of aggression. Warhol understood the visual power of rhythm and repetition—minimalism before it had a name. He also sensed that the relationship between content and style could be deliberately misaligned to create a new kind of pictorial irony.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Warhol’s work looked new because of a technique new to art—the half-tone silkscreen. It was the ultimate…
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