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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

Beyond Pop: Andy Warhol’s ‘Last Decade’

Milwaukee Art Museum features iconic artist’s later work

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Best known as a painter of Campbell’s Soup cans and celebrity portraits almost 50 years ago, Andy Warhol and his work seem innocuous nowadays. His iconographic language has become so integrated into contemporary America’s visual landscape that it is easy to overlook his role as one of its architects. But by blurring the lines between commercial and fine art, his philosophy about art as a mass product made him one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century.

An American pop artist after Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol’s heyday came in the 1960s. But by the time of his death in 1987, he had yet to squander his 15 minutes of fame. His prolific output during the last 10 years of his life is the focus of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s major exhibition, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” which chronicles the artist’s final years before his death at age 58 from complications following gallbladder surgery.

The show’s curator, Joseph Ketner, hopes to create awareness that there is more to Warhol’s legacy than celebrities and Brillo boxes. He points out that the public’s understanding of Warhol is based on a relative sliver of his oeuvre: “[Warhol] worked for 40 years,” Ketner says. “What happened the rest of the time? Our whole public image of him is built upon a four-year period.” It was a car-crash painting from Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, made in the early ’60s, that served as the impetus for the show, and for Ketner’s “revelation” that Warhol was “not just a Pop figure who does soup cans and celebrities, but deals with these very difficult subjects.”

Whether tacit or explicit, Warhol’s preoccupation with death continued well past the “Death and Disaster” series, as is evident in “The Last Decade.”In the 1978 diptych Self-Portrait with Skull, what remains of Yorick is perched on the artist’s shoulder. In Self-Portrait (Strangulation), created the same year, the artist is pictured six times, a pair of disembodied hands clasped around his neck.

The themes of “The Last Decade”are not entirely macabre. Warhol’s interplay between hand drawing and mechanical reproduction is central to the exhibit, and to understanding Warhol’s profound impact on the art world. In contrast to Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, Andy Warhol was the antithesis of the artist as bermasculine painter of his id. The action painter rendered his expression with lashings of pure color; when Warhol cut off the artist’s hand, the machine sprang forth in its place.

Incorporating silk-screen overlays on hand-painted surfaces, Warhol used printmaking and photographic techniques as an extension of—rather than an exclusion of—the artist’s hand. The silk-screen canvas Fancy Yarn (1983), which comprises four panels, mimics the energy of Pollock’s action paintings without the “authenticity” of the artist’s physical gesture. It is his ability to “play off the dichotomy of the hand and the machine” that interests Ketner about Warhol’s later work.

Trained as a commercial artist, Warhol worked in the 1950s as an illustrator for Vogue and designed record covers for RCA. In his final years, Warhol returned to hand drawing and painting, collaborating with Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat on Alba’s Breakfast and Origin ofCotton.

Monumental scale in the later works, such as The LastSupper, which spans 6.5 by 25.5 feet, is central to understanding Warhol’s work in the 1980s, according to Ketner. The reason, he says, is twofold: “Part of it was based upon the simple fact that Warhol had larger places in which to paint. But another part of it was that even though many of these are commissioned works, a lot of these were very personal to him, part of that ambition to create his artistic legacy. He made extraordinarily huge paintings, larger than any he did at any other time in his career. And when a visitor comes through the gallery, you will see things that will completely envelop your space.”

MAM’s chief curator, Brady Roberts, concurs. “It’s going to be experiential. You can think about it and read about it and look at the [catalog], but the experience of seeing the show is going to be incredibly powerful.”

“Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” opens Sept. 26 (through Jan. 3, 2010) at the Milwaukee Art Museum.