I’ve been avoiding the Art Institute for two months. Andy Warhol’s the reason. His sprawling retrospective takes up a bunch of space inside and banners advertising it cover the Michigan Avenue outside walls like ads for a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s hard to ignore. I held out until last week before convincing myself to see the show if for no other reason than to have my gut feelings confirmed.
I lasted around ten minutes. The first room is devoted to Warhol’s hand-drawn design work. Had he kept on this track, he could’ve become a second-tier Ben Shahn or a poor man’s Hockney maybe. But he switched to copying cartoons and advertising, eventually removing his hand (and labor) from the manufacture of his work. The results are lazy and boring to look at. But they sure take up a lot of wallspace.
The Art Institute’s own horrifying oversized Mao dominates one of the rooms. Beyond him are purple wallpaper renderings of his impassive countenance, echoing it into eternity. Why it’s ok to celebrate the most prolific killer in human history this way is lost on me.
What Warhol’s best-known work—Elvises, soup cans, Marilyns, electric chairs—does is take what’s worst about photography, flattens and simplifies it, blows it up to fill any size wall, and repeats every image ad nauseam. The happy crowd snapping selfies in the gallery is the perfect audience for this stuff, because, unlike good art, a Warhol looks just as good on their tiny screens as on the walls of what is supposed to be a world-class museum.
I ducked into one of the screening rooms running Warhol’s films just as Marcel Duchamp’s skull face appeared on screen. Almost too on the nose that Warhol’s spiritual father is here blessing his progeny’s smashing success. Duchamp showed generations of failed painters how to win in the art world. Warhol is likely his very best student.
It’s not for nothing that Warhol’s studio was called The Factory. His underlings churned out endless variations on one tired theme after another, then Warhol ran around and made his vapid zen koan pronouncements fooling collectors and social climbers into thinking something of value that they weren’t hip enough to get was being imparted. He keeps laughing at us for these last few decades since he’s passed. With Warhol, the joke is always on the viewer, or worse, the foolish rich man or institution which has wasted its money on his overpriced trinkets.
I remember when Warhol died in the 80s. I drew a beer bottle with magic markers in tribute. He was the most famous artist to die right in my lifetime. I’ll always be thankful to him for helping the Velvet Underground along and for his ridiculous 3D Frankenstein movie. The rest can go in the trash.
I don’t know what the Art Institute was thinking. Maybe they saw the wild success the MCA had with their David Bowie show and decided to go all in on celebrity worship. He made being famous for being famous into an art form. We’re all living in the ugly hangover of that horrible idea. I can’t imagine what anyone with functioning brain cells and their own opinions could get out of Andy’s garish wallpaper.
But what do I know? I’m just a dumb painter.
On my way out of the museum I popped into the print and drawing galleries. There was a show of Old Master drawings up. Nothing earthshaking, but it felt like detox for what I’d come from. Here were depictions of faces and places hundreds of years ago which had more human presence than any acre of Warhol product. People with pencils or crayons or inks reckoning with the world around them.
You know, art.