Appreciating Warhol, At Last

Dia Beacon shows off Pop master’s oeuvre, including films, “Shadows”

In the spring of 2004, my first visit to Dia Beacon—the mammoth galleries reclaimed from an abandoned Nabisco factory in Beacon, New York—provided just the kind of transcendent experiences for which art lovers often hope but seldom have in modern museums. After wandering through the cavernous exhibition spaces, flooded with ample and remarkably even natural light, I walked into one gallery and stopped in my tracks. Before me was Andy Warhol’s “Shadows,” a 102-canvass series, hung end to end in an almost unbroken line all the way around the room.

I had never seen the entire work in one place; indeed, for its first exhibit in 1979, Warhol could only find a gallery space big enough to hang 66 of the paintings. Even better, Dia’s thoughtful curators placed four large gray sofas in the center of the gallery. I plopped down, spread out, and, quite literally, wallowed in Warhol. From the sizable number and variety of art on permanent display in these galleries, “Shadows,” remains my favorite.

Dia played no small part in Warhol’s artistic output. The museum’s original founders—Philippa de Menil, Heiner Friedrich, and Helen Winkler—together commissioned more than 50 paintings from Warhol during Dia’s early years on Wooster Street in Soho. Dia donated its substantial Warhol holdings—saving only “Shadows”—to the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh. This exhibit commemorates Dia Beacon’s second anniversary and the tenth anniversary of the Warhol Museum, which Dia founded in partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Carnegie Museum.

I should pause to recount how thoroughly I hated Andy Warhol’s work when I first saw it. The first run-in happened in 1986, at which time I was only a visitor to New York. I got lost in SoHo and stumbled across Dia’s original Wooster Street space, festooned with poster promoting an exhibit of Andy Warhol paintings. I was very excited—at first.

But upon wandering around the gallery, I could not for the life of me understand how photos of car crashes, burning buildings, and crumpled corpses could be considered art just because someone famous had copied them, slapped them into a collage, and smeared them with paint. Warhol’s subject matter seemed lurid; his technique, sloppy. This guy, I decided, is not for me.

After I moved to New York the following year, a nightclub acquaintance dragged me back to Dia for the first exhibit of Warhol’s work since his sudden death (due to complications from gall bladder surgery) in February 1987. With multiple estate auctions raking in unheard of sums in the tens of millions, Warholmania gripped the city. But as I stared at painting after painting of skulls—large or tiny, bright or dull, starkly outlined or primitively drawn human skulls—I could not believe I had been boondoggled yet again. Weren’t New Yorkers supposed to be smarter than this?

Twenty years later, after a serious arts education, a career as a critic and filmmaker, and surviving an epidemic that claimed far too many friends, I see Warhol—even the “Disaster Paintings” and the “Skulls”—through very different eyes. His work confuses and enthralls, delights and disquiets me. I can’t get enough of it.

What I once found irksome now fascinates me. How did Warhol, with such seeming simplicity, create images of destruction that are somehow both horrifying and beautiful? Was my visceral first reaction to the “Skulls” really about the paintings or about some unconscious discomfort I felt at having to consider death as art just as AIDS was beginning to rear its head?

I love to examine the imperfections in these canvases, the result of the silk-screening technique Warhol used to make them. The seeming drips and smears in two of my favorites—“Gangster Funeral” (1963) and “Foot and Tire” (1963-64)—aren’t the mistakes or sloppiness I once saw, but the deliberate intention of an artist who smashed the wall between fine arts and the mass media and, unlike contemporaries including Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein, kept going. While other Pop artists returned to easel painting, Warhol used techniques of mass production to create images of deceptive complexity. Automobiles can be seen as symbols of consumer culture, items of mass production, or vehicles of mass destruction. While clearly emblematic of death and decay, Warhol’s “Skulls” can also appear festive, even downright jolly. Turn your head just right and some of them—especially the ones done in vibrant colors—almost appear to be laughing.

Repetition takes on a new meaning with works like “Brillo Boxes”—just try not to grin as you walk around them—and the “Washington Monument” wallpaper.

Warhol made his first silk-screened works in 1962. The very next year he started making movies. Cinema, of course, consists entirely of reproduced images—24 per second, to be exact. Warhol’s films, from “Eat” and “Blow Job” to “Chelsea Girls” and “Screen Tests,” are fetishistic exercises in distortion and observation. As Amy Taubin wrote in “Sight and Sound”: “Warhol’s cinema frames time as it passes. The films thus invert the strategy of the silkscreen “Disaster” series—in which time, stopped dead, is framed over and over again.”

Read Taubin’s essay, reprinted in the exhibition catalogue, before taking in one of the show’s film screenings, curated by gay historian Douglas Crimp, and shown every Saturday and Sunday afternoon through September 4 only. Excerpts of Warhol’s “Screen Tests” play continually on video screens, but these are not nearly as enthralling as the projected films. I wish Crimp had included some of Warhol’s Polavision movies, which he made with a short-lived Polaroid film stock that could be shot and instantly developed and projected.

The screen tests neatly complement one of Warhol’s largest bodies of work—his portraits. Dia has hung a sizable assortment in a single gallery, where the sheer variety of personalities nearly overwhelms the senses. Warhol’s palette seems surprisingly spare on the surface here. But look closely for unexpected pairings—like aquamarine with red or violet with brown—and extra detailing, especially in clothing and facial features.

The exhibit’s best treats are two “Last Supper” (1986) canvases, taken from the last cycle of paintings Warhol made before he died. These giant reinterpretations of Leonardo DaVinci’s masterpiece are revelations of style and substance. Who else but Warhol could lift religious subject matter from one of history’s most iconic paintings and make it his own with such simple artistic choices? In his full version of the painting, Warhol uses only black on white his brushstrokes alternating between thick, concentrated swirls and lightly thatched lines, a combination that actually seems to age the work.

Warhol’s second version of the “Last Supper” lifts from his familiar toolbox. Christ’s image is fragmented and repeated, the multiple images placed in a visual circle around the canvass, giving the work its visual unity. Warhol calms a childlike mix-and-match compositional style with primary colors in respectful, muted hues. In an age in which politicians and their minions gleefully judge art without ever attempting to understand it, Warhol’s work here reminds us that artistic freedom is a thing of joy. Perhaps this has nothing to do with why Warhol painted Christ in red, yellow, and blue, but I’d sure like to hear somebody even try to object to that.

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