The ’80s, Through Warhol’s Eyes

8 untitled 50 dentures 1983 The ’80s, Through Warhol’s Eyes

I knew Andy Warhol for a short but lively stint in 1984 and ’85, while my then-fiancée was one of his best friends. We were out every night, all night. One night, my parents had their big summer party in Greenwich; I thought Andy would like it since I had invited a few top polo players, all the Argentine pros. He arrived late, in a long white stretch limo. As the driver opened the door, out popped a six-foot-tall she-man dressed in white named “Marilyn”; next came Boy George in pink eye shadow. Then Andy, in a droopy black jacket, a snapshot camera around his neck.

Looking back now, I can only remember Warhol the celebrity, whether at Studio 54 or a social soiree. The idea of him as an artist was somehow lost on me; indeed, everyone knew he had painted Marilyn and Elvis, but people didn’t seem to care much about what he was painting in the ’80s. Andy the celebrity was just much bigger than Andy the artist. Somehow, the countless society portraits he had done in the ’70s, and the entourage of sycophants and pretentious hangers-on, had become a circus, with Andy as ringleader. But as an artist he felt like a very famous hack.

A show now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” is all about this time in his life and about the work he did before his death, in 1987, and it is meant to be a platform for us to focus and evaluate the broad range of works he did in the late ’70s and ’80s. (These are, by and large, familiar: the Rorschach blots, the collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, the “Shadow” paintings, the peeing-on-copper “Oxidation” series.) So the show is worth seeing for many reasons, but not in order to discover the great late works of Warhol, since almost anyone paying attention could have seen them all in the galleries or at auction in the past several years. There has been a bull run on 1980s “Guns”; there has been a bull run on “Last Supper” paintings; and there is a market for any possible Warhol you can imagine. The hands-down winner was, of course, the 9-foot-square 1986 purple fright wig Self Portrait, which made $32.6 million at auction last May. So we won’t be rediscovering the late work in this show-that happened over five years ago-but it’s a good time to study the work and perhaps reconsider whether the bull run on late Warhol was justified.

Certainly, at the time, late Warhol, the man or the paintings, was not taken seriously by art critics. The catalog essay from the show explains that his 1973 show “Portraits of the ’70s” at the Whitney Museum of American Art was a bomb; he was chastised by critics for “swimming in a sea of superficiality” and “carrying an absolute interest in the size of his bank balance.” We learn from Robert Rosenblum’s informative essay that the late period was preceded by a period of intense self-doubt. Indeed, in 1978, he said, “I wasn’t creative since I was shot,” and in his new book on Warhol, Arthur Danto takes that controversial and fascinating position, that he created virtually no good work after he was shot, in 1968. The Brooklyn show features clips from Andy Warhol’s TV and copies of Interview magazine (which he founded), showing us that, good or bad, Andy’s vision was big and complex. If Marcel Duchamp was the art world’s Einstein, Warhol used his formula to make the bomb, and changed the art world forever.

This doesn’t mean, though, that all the work is good. For example the “black and white ads” series on view at Brooklyn is a return to some of his earlier work. (They are images of newspaper ads for soup, or for “99-cent steaks” or “$24.99 Pumas.”) The works are hand-painted, we are often told. Why that would matter is the real question, since Warhol’s great works were screened, not painted. Who cares if he painted them? I don’t. This series is dry and lacks any energy; I’ve never liked them, and even in the show they still fall flat. Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger once said that some of the paintings look as if they are waiting for Jean-Michel Basquiat to apply some colorful faces and words, and he’s right. I do not subscribe to the view that every late picture is a great picture; in fact, much of the late work is tired, lifeless and mechanical-but the exceptional pieces here are some of Warhol’s best.

It’s hard for us to sweep away the mythical stature of today and remember that in the ’80s, you could pay Warhol to do almost anything-paintings of cars (Mercedes), or a commission for a cookie company the Statue of Liberty paintings). He was not unlike LeRoy Neiman, an artist whose commercial success Andy admired, and with whom he traded a few pictures. Warhol’s work was always in dialogue with the art market and its paying clients, so socialite portraits, dollar-sign paintings and paid commissions were all welcome.

The “Last Supper” series (some of which is on view in Brooklyn) was actually a paid commission from dealer Alexander Iolas, who had just opened a gallery in Milan across from the real Leonardo da Vinci fresco. Warhol used his formula, chose a kitschy source image and silk-screened the copy of a copy in bright colors. This time, he produced beautiful, billboard-style paintings that treated Jesus like a pop star. The Baltimore Museum’s monumental diptych on loan for the show is an absolute masterpiece, worth the trip to Brooklyn alone. To think that the artist was commissioned by a dealer to produce these works still feels strange, though the catalog notes that he continued to make them even after the order was filled. But whenever art embraces commerce, questions and doubts linger. The show gives us a new opportunity to understand the circumstances of what art he produced before his untimely death. In the ’80s, Warhol answered those questions: “I’m still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist.”

editorial@observer.com