Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy

What a new retrospective reveals about the artist, and about our swerve away from humanism

Fred W. McDarrah / Getty

Andy Warhol was a child of poverty in the 1930s, a college student in the 1940s, a Mad Man in the 1950s, a counterculture sorcerer in the 1960s, a personal brand in the 1970s, and a nouveau riche mascot in the 1980s. And since? At the first major retrospective of Warhol’s work, in 1989, two years after the artist’s death, John Updike noticed visitors “glancing slyly at one another, as if to ask, ‘How foolish do you feel?’ ” Thirty years on, no one is feeling scammed at “From A to B and Back Again,” the mammoth retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Who thinks of Warhol anymore as a maker of larks and postmodern bêtises? He’s now widely regarded as the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century.

“Because we live in a culture of display and consumption,” Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, writes in the introduction to the show’s catalog, “where the personal and the public are virtually inseparable, Warhol was the perfect artist for his time and our time.” Weinberg draws the obvious connection between social media and Warhol’s aphorism about everyone’s 15 minutes of fame. But Warhol’s great advance was collapsing any distinction between commercial and noncommercial modes of experience. Maybe it’s never been easier to make the case for his powers of influence because his afterlife has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism—the attempt to turn over all human activity, no matter how sacred, to the marketplace. Neoliberalism is simply Warholism as a theory of governance.

One difference between Warhol and Duchamp, or the Dadaists, or any of his predecessors in the nugatory arts, is that they did not have a free market to insinuate their visionary cynicism into everything we do and are. Blame neoliberalism, Instagram, the Kardashians, whatever—the habits of self-commodification that Warhol is regarded as having pioneered have gone general. The revolution originated in technique. Warhol started out as a magazine illustrator; he knew how to coax an eye across a surface, how to fix it on an image. From there, he developed a nonpainterly style that, though he was still putting paint on canvas, withdrew the image from space and time, made it flat and deathlessly still. He then gave to his human subjects the same inhuman poise he gave to—took from?—a Coke bottle.

The kismet of that early work (it remains breathtaking) would never have happened without instinct, taste, a sense of proportion and color (his were perfect), and maybe above all guile. As the exhibit reminds us, the best work is audacious, though now it comes with a feeling of irrevocable permanence. Soup cans, Marilyn, Liz, the Brillo boxes—at the Whitney, one canonical piece follows another, each delivering its little eidetic hit, as when you pass a celebrity on the street. The experience is powerful, disorienting, and over before it begins. I was in and out in half an hour.

Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.

What made Warhol thrilling in 1962 acquired a bitter aura in November 2016. As Weinberg points out, Donald Trump has made admiring reference to Warhol and his dictum “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” What to make, then, in an era of trash politics, of an art that celebrated trash? The exhibit follows him from a super-devout Catholic family in the Slavic ghettos of Pittsburgh—a boy who was cripplingly shy, ill-assimilated, and often confined to a sickbed; a boy for whom thought, expression, and narrative were pain—as he turned himself into Andy Warhol. What can this story tell us about our own anti-humanist swerve?

Warhol was born Andrew Warhola (he later dropped the a to seem less ethnic) in 1928, to an impoverished working-class family. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Mikova, in what is now Slovakia. His father was a coal miner; Warhol’s first place of residence was a tar-paper shack, his second an apartment without a proper toilet. Thanks to the postal bonds set aside for him by his father (who died when Andrew was 13), Warhol was the first person in his family to attend college.

At Carnegie Tech, he was a moonbeam: pale, fanciful, elfish, and already remote. And talented. Living Room, which he painted as an undergraduate in 1948, is doubly remarkable: The tiny watercolor is autobiographical, a depiction of his childhood home, and in being so expressive of the intimacies of poverty, it looks more like one of Vincent van Gogh’s evocations of peasant life than like a Warhol. It is a work of supreme tenderness, with its subject matter’s dinginess balanced against the sublimity and grace of the everyday.

After graduating in 1949, Warhol moved to New York City, and quickly became known as, in one graphic designer’s words, “the best shoe drawer in New York City.” He was hired by the I. Miller company to produce images for its weekly footwear ads in The New York Times. He did illustrations for the slickest magazines and piecework for the biggest corporate accounts, made Christmas cards for Tiffany and perfume ads for Bonwit Teller. He borrowed a technique from the Lithuanian-born American painter Ben Shahn of tracing a sketch in ink, then pressing the wet ink against a piece of absorbent blotting paper to transfer the image. It made for a sensitive line, a line with perceptible temperament, but by a process of reproduction that troubled any idea of an “original” version touched by the artist’s hand.

By the end of the 1950s, he was famous as a commercial artist, and his “cockroach period,” as he put it—his years of living with insects and roommates—came to an end. He bought a four-story townhouse on Lexington Avenue, off 89th Street. But he wanted to be a fine artist, and in the 1950s, Warhol still associated being a fine artist with being an expressive one; and to work expressively was to all but admit he was gay. “If you look at the Boy drawings, for instance, they’re all about touch,” noted Neil Printz, referring to a series of erotic pieces Warhol made in the mid- to late ’50s. “There’s this contour line that almost seems never broken, as if he never lifted his eyes from the subject, and his hand kept moving constantly over the contours of a young man’s body.” His first gallery exhibition, in 1952, was titled “Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote,” and included work that was too fey for the times.

The epochal turning point came in 1960, when Warhol showed a handful of acquaintances and art-world players two paintings of a Coke bottle. One was a lyrical meditation in an abstract-expressionist mode, complete with Jackson Pollock–style drippings. The other was as clean and cold and devoid of personal expression as the item itself. “It’s naked, it’s who we are,” said one viewer, and Warhol, in step with changing tastes, began working in the Pop mode. But at the end of 1961, his new work had not been shown in a gallery, and was felt to be derivative of Roy Lichtenstein’s and James Rosenquist’s.

Then a friend suggested that he paint an everyday object, such as a can of soup. Within a year, he’d settled upon his signature technique of reproducing a photograph as a silk-screen stencil, and turning a stolen image into a kind of painting. The results were infinitely repeatable, and when the screen clotted with paint, imperfect duplication made for variations. “You get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple—quick and chancy,” Warhol later wrote. “I was thrilled with it.”

In her essay for the catalog, Donna De Salvo, the curator of the Whitney exhibition, proposes that understanding the shift means appreciating that his 1950s period was “foundational.” The case she and her show present is unexpectedly, and astutely, personal. She argues that Warhol, in making his hand disappear, was not responding to the postmodern condition so much as solving a strategic challenge brought on by the closet. By hiding himself, by making touch disappear, he could express his sexual identity negatively, in a total renunciation of the machismo of the abstract expressionists; of the Cedar Tavern myth of hard-drinking, hard-fucking, hard-painting men’s men.

Up to 1962, when a show at the Stable Gallery made Warhol famous, his is a Cinderella story (I say this without irony) and quite moving. The moonbeam—this one-off, this whatsit, who was reviled even by his gay peers as “too swish,” and who stuck to his sense of what art might be and created work completely outside a gallery system that rejected him as too weird—effected a revolution in thought and being. It makes what came next so pitiable.

Warhol ramped up his output, thanks to more liberal use of assistants. After making the Death and Disaster series, in 1963—chilling images of crime scenes, car accidents, an electric chair—he moved his studio into the 47th Street space that became known as the Factory. The debut of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964 was triumphant. A line wrapped around the block; inside, body pressed upon body. That night, he threw open the Factory doors, and it, too, was mobbed.

Warhol, a disciplined and hard worker, pretended he did nothing, and the idea that you could be famous for being famous drew to him some badly weakened souls. The Factory, curiously, let in all the pandemonium of the ’60s, but none of its idealism. When the dancer Freddie Herko, a Factory regular, became the first of its many casualties, dancing out a friend’s upper-floor window while high on speed in 1964, Warhol—who’d moved on from painting to moviemaking—said: “Gee, isn’t it too bad we weren’t there to shoot it.”

The total blank he presented turned everyone else into the lonely fan he himself had been, back in the ’50s when, isolated and seemingly allergic to himself, he’d all but stalked Truman Capote (who regarded him as “just a hopeless born loser”). Warhol allowed himself no more than a quarter of a diet pill a day (to give him the “go go go feeling”) and, over the next few years, watched as a semi-performative nervous breakdown unfolded around him. “Desperate, lost people find their way to him, looking for some sort of salvation, and Andy sort of sits back like a deaf-mute with very little to offer.” That’s how Capote put it in Edie: American Girl, the oral history about Edie Sedgwick, the young socialite who was one of Warhol’s first “superstars” and his entrée into the old-money sanctum. “He was not responsible” for Edie’s early demise thanks to alcohol and pills, said the filmmaker Emile de Antonio. “But he never put a hand out, either.”

Cold and mute and static—that is Pop art. Making you feel complicit in the coldness, the muteness, the stasis? That is Warhol. He impresses the viewer only insofar as the viewer’s defenses against him are weak. His greatness has always lain in our failing. The less we push back on the idea that prurience and detritus represent the sum of it, the greater his powers of divination seem. The Warholian insinuation creeps out beyond the canvas, beyond the persona, to speak to the condition of all art, maybe all modernity, and with a retroactive power that rewrites everything that came before it. An inner life, a sense of vocation, a distrust of fame and a special loathing for speculative fortunes, a personal relationship with God (or nature) that the image may partake in but never supplant—Warholism negates it all. No wonder he has never been bigger.

The impulse to rediscover the hand and face of the young striver, the Warhol of the 1950s, is an understandable one. In turning back the clock on the whingey, fatigue-exuding zombie—the Warhol played by David Bowie, who knew him personally, in the film Basquiat—maybe we will recover something of our own tender selves. Warhol must have known we’d go there. In black-and-white footage from the Factory days, one of his superstars makes the case for Warhol as a kind of saint. “He sees God wherever he looks,” she says, “and in whoever he looks at. So that’s why they call it art … just done, um, with a touch of divinity.” I will give Warhol the last word. He pulls in his cupid-bow lips to better push it out. With a tiny, airless pop, all he says is: “Fudge.”

This article appears in the January/February 2019 print edition with the headline “Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy.”