Okay, so we knew this Warhol thing at the Met was going to be nonsense: it’s an aggressively marketed, broad-ranging, knock-down drag-out affair based on a truly silly prompt. The Met’s website introduces the show thusly:“For decades, critics have observed that Andy Warhol exerted an enormous impact on contemporary art, but no exhibition has yet explored the full nature or extent of that influence.”
For one thing, most of the work included in this exhibition is not contemporary to 2012. It was contemporary with Warhol, which makes the extent of his influence difficult to tease out. Warhol’s great prowess as an artist was to act as a lightning rod for his era: he was extremely sensitive to the aesthetics and the concerns of the time in which he was making art. So, if you were making work that was at all relevant during the 60s-80s, you were probably making something that looked like Andy Warhol’s. Does that mean he was an influence on that work? I’m not so sure. Fairer to say he loomed large in the cultural atmosphere, and everybody else’s work had to consider that presence in some way. But acting as a lightning rod, he took up everything everybody else was making and put it back out: other artists’ influence on his work shaped whatever influence they received in turn. The truth is more of a collaborative effort than a one-way street.
There are a few cheeky, self-aware moments at the Met, but they are so subtle as to be almost entirely swallowed by the mind-numbing obviousness of the exhibition. One is in the first gallery, in the form of Jeff Koons’s 1988 wooden sculpture of children and cherubs pushing a pig forward, titled Ushering In Banality. On loan from Gagosian (like a good number of other pieces in the exhibition), the sculpture hints at the market frenzy and art fame that Warhol did much to advance, which would encourage the production of expensive, superficial work (like Jeff Koons makes). It also ushers us into what feels like an unending epoch of banally presented work. The exhibition is organized into a series of themed galleries: Death, Portraiture, Queer Studies, Appropriation, etc. Walking into these rooms, I was knocked over the head with the simplicity of the comparisons. Andy Warhol made portraits of famous people; here are other examples of portraits of famous people; Did you know that Andy Warhol was gay? Here are some other images made by gay people. Here is an image Gerhard Richter painted of a cow; Andy Warhol made wallpaper out of a cow image.
This is all not to say that there weren’t some pieces that I was thrilled to see. Catherine Opie, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Karen Kilimnik – the roster reads like a fantasy league. I’d never seen a Murakami oil painting in person before, and his famous flatness was wonderfully marred by little bits of brush and dust stuck into the paint, and canvas texture, and barely discernible brushstrokes. There was also Cory Arcangel’s breakout 2002 piece Super Mario Clouds (2002-), where he altered an NES Mario cartridge (which you can do at home!) to loop a sequence of just the little square clouds floating by forever. It was installed in its own room as a projection and two small boxy TVs on the floor; a little boy sat in front of one waiting for Mario to start happening, and then got bored. So great! Also fun was the inclusion of several Ryan Trecartin films and a Kalup Linzy video – always fun to see, but not a substantially different viewing experience from watching on your computer at home. Lastly, Jeff Koons’s truly unbelievable Michael Jackson and Bubbles, the famously g-g-g-gaudy life-size gilded porcelain statue of an ’80s Jackson and pet chimp Bubbles. Must be seen to be believed; it’s fun to imagine it as it was once shown, in the palace at Versailles.
Warhol has undeniably had an enormous influence on contemporary art, both its social/economic landscape and its aesthetic qualities. This show didn’t really fill in the broad strokes, and I left lamenting that an opportunity to gather such an impressive array of artists would be spent in pursuit of such trivial goals. This show was plain dumb populist fun. Bring your kids, leave your big pictures at home.