On ViewThe Brant Foundation Art Study Center
Thirty Are Better Than One
May 10–July 31, 2023
“Too many people who say my work is vacuous are judging it either from a reduced illustration or even as an abstract idea,” Andy Warhol once quipped in a 1962 interview with David Bourdon. “I think someone should see my paintings in person before he says they’re vacuous.” Indeed, Warhol’s work—or at least images of it—may seem overly familiar, but, in person, it never fails to impart a potent, almost visceral impact that does not come across in reproductions. Despite their art-historical status, his paintings still seem full of vitality, and manage to attain some level of provocation after fifty or sixty years, as other factors add to the work’s lasting authority and influence. Formal concerns are always paramount. Scale, for instance, was often key, as were unexpected color relationships and jarring juxtapositions of forms and content from one work, or series of works, to another. Those aspects, combined with the consequential themes that he touched upon—socio-political topics, issues of gender identity, not to mention the fraught relationship between culture and commerce—contribute to the overall heady effect of an in-depth Warhol survey, like this one at the Brant Foundation in the East Village.
Thirty Are Better Than One, features some one hundred works, all but one from the collection of businessman, publisher, and collector Peter M. Brant, who also curated the show. It is a reiteration (with some additional pieces) of the exhibition of Brant’s Warhol holdings held a decade ago at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut. An early patron and friend of the artist, a Factory regular, and producer of two Warhol films, Brant selected for the New York show a wide range of paintings, drawings, and sculptures spanning the artist’s career. Gold-leaf embellished drawings of shoes for the I. Miller company from the 1950s, and a pink folding screen, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, created for Tiffany’s window in 1954 are on display, as are several major 1986 works, including the mural-size Camouflage and a number of paintings and drawings inspired by da Vinci’s The Last Supper, created just before Warhol’s death in 1987, at age 58. Da Vinci also inspired the exhibition’s title work, from 1963, a large vertical canvas (110 by 82 inches) showing a grid of five rows of six identical black-and-white silkscreen images of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1503). Warhol’s schematic paintings like this are often viewed as a wry statement about the banality of mechanical reproduction, and the dissolution of an artwork's time-honored “aura.” Seen in person today, however, the rigorous austerity of Warhol’s composition appears to augment the serene dignity of da Vinci’s vision.
While not as comprehensive as the Whitney Museum’s sprawling 2018-19 Warhol retrospective, From A to B and Back Again, the Brant exhibition is nevertheless a concise overview that offers an assessment of the artist’s current relevance. Among the most riveting works, 12 Electric Chairs (1964-65), a colorful Pop-art showcase grid that harbors an unflinching exploration of America’s conflicted attitudes toward violent crime and institutionalized lethal punishment, still disturbs. Displayed in the building’s elevator, Warhol’s fierce Vote McGovern poster (1972), featuring an acerbic image of a demonic-looking Richard Nixon in his presidential reelection bid, is a prescient example of a negative campaign ad, all too pertinent today. Apropos of current conflicts, i.e. the US’s ongoing clash with China’s global interests, Warhol’s voluminous studies of Chairman Mao Zedong’s face take on new meaning. Among the numerous examples of the 1972-73 “Mao” series on view, the largest Mao (177 by 137 inches), a Brant gift to the Metropolitan Museum in 1977, which loaned the giant canvas, looks particularly imposing on the second floor of the Foundation, whose cavernous space, built in the 1920s, was once a Con Edison substation, and then the home and studio of the late artist Walter De Maria.
For Warhol, the ubiquitousness of Mao’s image in the 1960s and ’70s paralleled America’s obsession with celebrity, especially the movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Shot Light Blue Marilyn (1964) is outstanding here. In 1967, Brant paid $5,000 for the painting, which was one of four Marilyn Monroe canvases shot with a revolver between the eyes by a performance artist visiting the Factory. Liz #5 (Early Colored Liz) (1963), a luminous silkscreen painting of Elizabeth Taylor with a turquoise background, is the centerpiece of a particularly striking installation on one wall, surrounded by I. Miller collage drawings of shoe designs named for Elvis Presley, Mae West, and other stars. Images of more famous faces appear at the show’s entrance, in a collection of some fifty small Warhol Polaroids mounted on one wall. Among the pictures of prominent celebrities of the day, from Mick Jagger and Diana Ross to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dolly Parton, are some shots familiar from Interview magazine covers. Today, the panorama of faces could also suggest Instagram swipes, and one wonders how Warhol would have navigated—and transformed—social media, an environment that he anticipated in many respects.