Warhol, From Myth to Man, at the Whitney

Posted June 19, 2018 6:35 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — "Warhol was a myth when he was alive, and he’s even more of a myth now,” said Donna De Salvo, deputy director and senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “To humanize Warhol and get people to actually look at what he made is not as easy as it might sound.”

Now De Salvo is tackling that challenge in “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” the first Warhol retrospective organized by a United States museum since 1989, opening Nov. 12. An earlier show, at the Museum of Modern Art, came two years after Warhol’s death, at 58, and focused on his most famous Pop images of celebrities and disaster scenes from the 1960s.

De Salvo, discussing details of the show for the first time, said she aims to place these well-known silk-screens on a continuum with the overtly homosexual content of his little-seen work from the 1950s and the more abstract experimentation in his less widely acclaimed paintings from the 1980s.

Influenced by his early work as a commercial illustrator for the I. Miller shoe company, Warhol made gold-leaf shoe collages, including a pair in 1956 with pointedly mismatched buckles for the transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen. He drew penises with bows on them and caricatures of men playing dress-up, and he painted a canvas of boys kissing, which his college friend, artist Philip Pearlstein, submitted for exhibition to the coveted Tanager gallery only to have it laughed at.

The 1950s gallery, De Salvo said, “is about Warhol before Warhol, this working class son of immigrants, a gay Catholic boy from Pittsburgh who comes to New York for his first job in 1949.” De Salvo got to know Warhol while she was working on an exhibition of his early hand-painted images when she was a young curator at the Dia Art Foundation in the mid-1980s. “I found there was something actually very earnest about him,” she said.

For another show she organized at the Grey Art Gallery shortly after his death, “Success Is a Job in New York,” she interviewed his former fashion colleagues who said they admired Warhol’s “flamboyance” back in the 1950s, at a time when artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were closeted.

Because the gay content of his work was rejected by the art establishment, “he obscures it,” De Salvo said. But embedded in his choice of subjects during the 1960s, she said, “is this duality.” Marlon Brando appears as both a female heartthrob and a gay icon. Marilyn Monroe “could be a drag queen in the way he articulates it.” On the facade of the New York State Pavilion in the 1964 World’s Fair, Warhol presented portraits based on FBI criminal mug shots with the double entendre title “Most Wanted Men.”

“His insertion into a highly public space of something that had this very homoerotic aspect is a pretty radical gesture,” De Salvo said.

Deliberate ambiguity was more persistent in his late work, including his shadow paintings sprinkled with diamond dust, his Rorschach test images, and one of his last canvases layering the military camouflage pattern over a silk-screen of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” “He was moving into a whole new terrain,” De Salvo said.

Largely out of fashion by the ‘80s, Warhol became re-energized by collaborations with younger artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat. On view will be their painting “Paramount” (1984-85), a coded reference to Warhol’s boyfriend at the time, Jon Gould, who was a vice president at Paramount Pictures and who later died of AIDS.

“The context of the AIDS epidemic is not often discussed with Warhol,” De Salvo said, noting that Warhol never gave up his Catholicism and was terrified of dying as he witnessed the loss of friends and lovers.

Presented both in the Whitney theater and in the fifth floor galleries will be a large selection of Warhol’s films. These include a domestic view of the artist’s boyfriend John Giorno washing dishes (in the nude) and Warhol at the factory painting a Mao canvas. For people to see Warhol actually putting a brush to canvas, De Salvo said, “challenges a perception of the guy as a machine, the guy with the funny wig.”