Andy Warhol requires no introduction.
He is the most famous artist of the 20th century. No qualifiers are needed -- neither American nor pop artist. "Most famous" will do, and that is exactly what he wanted to be.
Like so many artists, Warhol's superlative-laden legacy came after his death in 1987 of complications from routine gallbladder surgery. Then, the 59-year-old artist was known for works made in the '60s, his fame attributed to past performances.
Since his death, his entire life's work is recognized as pivotal and prescient. In his last 10 years, he produced an astonishing number of pieces. The enormous painting series -- some in conjunction with other artists, some revisiting his old themes and many new experiments in painting and video -- are the subject of "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade," which opens Sunday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The exhibition of more than 50 pieces was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum. After it leaves Fort Worth, it will travel to the Brooklyn Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Regular visitors to the Modern will not find these works surprising, as the museum owns many pieces from Warhol's last years. The most familiar is his bilious green Self-Portrait, which usually hangs at the top of the monumental staircase.
The spectral image of Warhol presides over the collection and the building, a constant reminder of the artist's influence on all that resides within. When this painting is moved, which is rare, it is as visually jarring as if the lions outside New York City's Public Library got up and moseyed off to get a bite to eat.
Spoiler alert: The iconic Self-Portrait has been relocated inside the galleries; it is a shock to find it in a new spot, especially since there is a Warhol show in progress. In its place is a much less impressive white-on-white serial painting of Mona Lisa, from 1979, that had to be placed on the gray cement wall for contrast to keep it from looking like the proverbial polar bear in a snowstorm.
The glowering Andy has been moved to a place among a number of other self-portraits, some on camouflage print, some with skulls, some with disembodied hands wrapped around the artist's neck and some printed repeatedly on wallpaper that wraps the first gallery.
Only the double, positive/negative Self-Portrait with pink ground is as commanding as the more familiar green one from the same series. All of them seem like harbingers of Warhol's coming demise and are often likened to death masks.
Many of the themes Warhol employed in these last works -- the haunted self-portraits, religion and revisiting his early success stories -- are chapter-closing finalizations, but there are an equal number of works that reach beyond the late '80s, into the future, into now.
In the '60s, Warhol abandoned art-making for films. At the time, he said, "I don't paint anymore. I gave it up about a year ago and just do the movies now. I could do two things at the same time, but movies are more exciting. Paint was just a phase I went through."
The Factory, his staff of assistants, continued to crank out celebrity portraits, and these bankrolled the financially draining Interview magazine and the films, which, though hailed as avant-garde, never received popular acclaim, as they rarely showed anywhere beyond art houses and college campuses.
As critics began to relegate Warhol to the has-been bin, the artist refocused his attentions in the '80s and returned to art-making, inspired as much by a monetary deficit as a revitalized New York art scene that was stoked by a new generation of painters that included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel.
Warhol always liked mechanically produced images over hand-wrought ones, and for his return to painting, he utilized a hands-free vehicle that appealed to him for its performative aspects and defiant gesture.
He urinated on canvases. The canvases were coated with a copper ground, and the chemical reaction between bodily fluid and metal turned the surface splatters green. Soon everyone at the Factory was encouraged to contribute to multi-puddle works known as the Oxidation series. (This liquid medium was not original to Warhol -- Jackson Pollock was known to personally mark his drip paintings that sold to collectors whom he didn't like.)
In the next several years, Warhol created a number of series: "Reversal," photographic negatives printed on same-colored grounds (the famous image of Marilyn was black on black, Mona Lisa white on white); "Rorschach" (exactly what you'd expect); and "Retrospective" (where Marilyns were combined with Maos and soup cans).
Return to hand-painting
Warhol was thoroughly enjoying himself, even if no one in the U.S. was paying much attention. When his work surfaced, it was generally panned.
Yet, in the middle of all these screen-printing series, he picked up a large mop and swirled it around the canvas, then he overlaid the painted surface with a silkscreened black shadow. Warhol was hand-painting again.
In 1982, Warhol's gallerist, Bruno Bischofberger, suggested that Warhol paint in tandem with the much younger artists Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. The three of them worked independently on the same canvases to an interesting effect, but sparks flew when Warhol and Basquiat worked on the same piece simultaneously.
These are some of the most interesting pieces in the show, as they forced Warhol to pick up a brush and respond to the quick-moving Basquiat. The combination of Warhol's screen prints and hard-edged control, and Basquiat's energetic, primitive masks and snarling faces was dynamic.
Gallerists can also claim credit for prodding Warhol into his two other most successful series. Anthony d'Offay commissioned the scary self-portraits, and Greek dealer Alexandre Iolas wanted an artist to do a "Last Supper" series for the opening of his new Milanese gallery space directly opposite Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Warhol was the only artist willing to take the commission.
The paintings from the "Last Supper" series are not what you'd expect from Warhol. There is no irony. He was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church and treated the religious subject matter with respect.
He appropriated two reproductions of T he Last Supper, an old chromolithograph and a line drawing suitable for coloring books. He was adventurous with the line drawing, adding his trademark logos of famous brands and a huge price, as if the Last Supper were a blue plate special for $6.99.
He silk-screened the chromolithograph image over bright color fields and used the head of Jesus 112 times on one enormous panel. These pieces look unfinished, as there is no eye shadow or off-register lipstick. More disturbing is that the eye immediately goes to the empty triangle to the left of Jesus, the space made famous by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
Connections to today
This is not the first contemporary reference that the Warhol show engenders. Many of his works from 20 years ago looking startlingly familiar, as artists, designers and manufacturers have appropriated his work. The pastel camouflage prints have become one of the most popular trends in home furnishings, especially for children. The iconic graphic for war has become so toothless that it is now used in hues of pink and lavender for diaper bags and crib sheets.
His religious works were a hall pass for artists Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili to take liberties with religious iconography for immediate reactionary hysteria but long-term benefit. The outcry over what many viewed as desecration and religious commoditization burned the artists' names in the long-term memory banks. They have not been forgotten.
The Modern has mounted two pieces from its collection that did not come from Warhol's last decade. There is a pyramid of Campbell's Soup Cans from 1968 for anyone who simply has to see a can of Warhol's most famous tomato subject and a serigraph of 10 flowers from 1970 that could just as easily be labeled Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. There are just as many artists who came before Warhol who spring to mind, especially when viewing the Shadow series, such as the gestural champs, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.
As for his portraits, there isn't an artist alive who doesn't struggle with the Warhol legacy. Finding a new way forward without looking like emulation is tough.
One artist who found a way to do it is Michael Craig-Martin, who has put line-drawn portraits on video screens and uses computer programming to change the flat color fields. Two of these portraits are on view at the Goss-Michael gallery in Dallas. The randomness of the color combinations, which constantly change, is mesmerizing. This hands-off painting technique would have thrilled Warhol. Unfortunately, he was trapped in a time zone of primitive video production.
Presaging reality TV
The videos he made first for a New York City cable channel and later MTV are the most alarming thing in the exhibition. Warhol was an admitted voyeur, and he knew there was an appetite for looking at beautiful people, so he mined his Rolodex of friends and videotaped interviews.
The results are vacuous. When he interviews his painting partner Basquiat, there is no discussion of art, just Basquiat whining about a boo-boo on his leg and Warhol making concerned clucking sounds.
He filmed Stephen Sprouse, the Marc Jacobs of the '80s and a wildly creative fashion designer with abysmal business acumen who rose and fell each fashion season. Warhol cast his camera on models, club kids and anyone extremely attractive, such as Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, who could teach Adam Lambert a thing or two about makeup application.
The interviews recorded for Andy Warhol's TV and Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes are a precursor to the glut of pseudo-celebrity television and print that litter our landscape. The names may have changed, but the faces haven't; they are pretty, but they have nothing memorable to say. We have become a larger Warholian world but even more shallow.
When this show leaves town in mid-May -- and the green Andy is back up in the stairwell -- it will seem even spookier. As this show so ably illustrates, Andy Warhol isn't really dead.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade
Sunday through May 16
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
3200 Darnell St.
$10 age 13 to adult; $4 students with ID, seniors 60-plus; museum members and children 12 and younger free