‘Empire,” a movie that Andy Warhol and the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas shot in 1964, isn’t for the drowsy. The silent black-and-white film can run for eight hours and five minutes, and consists of a stationary image of night falling around the Empire State Building. “Empire” is part of “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” an exhibition that opens Nov. 12 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, movies and more, the show spans Warhol’s evolution from commercial illustrator in New York in the early 1950s to global celebrity in the 1980s.
The retrospective, which takes its name from the subtitle of the artist’s 1975 book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” proceeds largely chronologically through his 40-year career. It is bookended by two mammoth works featuring a camouflage pattern—an apt motif for an artist who cultivated a facade of blank neutrality, parrying probing questions about his art and inspiration with gnomic sound bites. Early in the exhibit, visitors are confronted by “Camouflage,” a 1986 acrylic and silk-screen ink painting that is 35 feet long and more than 9 feet high. The show’s final gallery has another vast painting from the same year, “Camouflage Last Supper,” in which Warhol conflates a photograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece with a green-and-brown motif.
Born in 1928, Warhol prefigured the digital age by shaping a personal brand and using technology such as photostat machines, cameras and tape recorders to experiment and create. According to Donna De Salvo, deputy director for international initiatives and senior curator at the Whitney, Warhol’s genius lay in linking the worlds of advertising and fine art. The exhibition includes works from the 1960s and ’70s that are among Warhol’s best known: his Brillo Boxes and his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Mao.
Warhol’s observation about the paintings of Ad Reinhardt—“They all look the same, but they’re all complicated underneath”—is also a fitting assessment of his own work, Ms. De Salvo said. Images that initially appear identical actually have subtle distinctions, such as the 32 containers in his “Campbell Soup Cans” or the dozens of bottles and stamps in “Green Coca-Cola Bottles” and “S&H Green Stamps.” “I think that Warhol’s a very nuanced artist,” Ms. De Salvo said. Early drawings, such as a series of shoes in collaged gold leaf and ink from the mid-1950s, including “Golden Shoe (Elvis Presley)” reveal his extraordinary gifts as a draftsman.
The Whitney show traces Warhol’s shifting persona from Madison Avenue journeyman to the impresario of the Factory, an unorthodox studio, soundstage and party venue, where he put his assembly-line ethos to work, churning out silk-screen prints and portraits amid a stream of celebrities and gawkers. He hopscotched from one medium to the next, dipping into film in the 1960s and turning some of his acolytes into “Superstars” in his screen tests and movies.
In 1965, Warhol flummoxed television host Merv Griffin by appearing on his talk show and not talking. Instead, he nodded or shook his head or whispered answers to Factory darling Edie Sedgwick, seated beside him. Two years before he died—in 1987, at age 58, from complications after surgery—he played himself on an episode of the television show “The Love Boat.”
“What’s key with Warhol is he always responds to things in the culture,” Ms. De Salvo said. During the 1980s, his images of Soviet missile silos documented Cold War-era concerns. Mortality was a perennial preoccupation, echoed in images of skulls, suicides and electric chairs. The subject took on greater urgency amid the AIDS epidemic, which claimed the life of one of Warhol’s boyfriends.
A gallery of works from the ’70s and ’80s includes collaborations with rising young artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. An untitled Haring and Warhol painting in acrylic and silk-screen ink from 1985 resembles a New York City tabloid, with one of Haring’s outlined figures alongside an image of Madonna. Ms. De Salvo, who met Warhol in the mid-80s, recalled that the artist was energized by the new generation. But he also felt competitive pressure. In an entry from late 1980 in “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” published posthumously in 1989, the artist frets about hobnobbing instead of creating. Warhol, who had just returned to New York from a trip to Paris, mused: “I got so nervous thinking about all these new kids painting away and me just going to parties, I figure I’d better get cracking.”
The Warhol movies in the exhibit were selected by Claire K. Henry, the Whitney’s assistant curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project. More than 10 short films, including glimpses of the artist and friends, can be seen in 16mm in the exhibition. Longer movies, including “Empire,” will be screened in the Whitney’s theater in a series that continues into 2019.
“Andy was very open to ideas,” said Mr. Mekas, who is now 95 years old. He recalls more serendipity than strategy in shooting “Empire.” While walking in Midtown Manhattan one day, Mr. Mekas caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building. “It was like a star of Bethlehem” he says, “a perfect, iconic image for Andy Warhol.” He proposed filming it, and Warhol deputized him to secure a movie camera and enough film for at least six hours. With a handful of friends and pastrami sandwiches, they headed to a room in an office tower about 20 blocks north of the Empire State Building.
Mr. Mekas set up the shot—one unblinking view of the skyscraper—and Warhol approved the framing. Every half-hour, Mr. Mekas loaded another 30-minute roll of film. Sometime before dawn, Warhol called it quits. “I think maybe he got bored,” Mr. Mekas said. “Or maybe I just ran out of film.”
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