Everything Is Nothing

Andy Warhol, presented with Spielbergian intensity

It's a rare occasion—that Wow! moment—when art stops you dead in your tracks and makes you forget everything you thought you knew. I was struck dumb the first time I saw one of Cady Noland's corroded milk crates filled with useless automotive junk. No knowledge of Dada paved the way to that encounter or mitigated the powerful sense of abjection radiated by her distressed container, into which she had tossed a couple of Bud empties, some oilcans, and a "dead" rubber chicken. It wasn't the "shock of the new," as Robert Hughes described the riveting and alienating force of early-20th-century art. Rather, it was precisely because I thought I was on familiar ground that the rupture of the unexpected was so acute.

Fast-forward to "Dia's Andy: Through the Lens of Patronage." With ample opportunities to view his art throughout this season and so many others, who wouldn't anticipate an edifying encounter? But no. "Dia's Andy" pulled the rug from under my feet. In part, this has to do with curator Lynne Cooke's bold decision to paper the entire first level of the exhibition with his black-and-white Washington Monument wallpaper (1974)—332 rolls of it—featuring a quick sketch of our nation's most phallic edifice, loosely gridded and reiterated ad infinitum. Like an orgiastic extravaganza of mock patriotism, it serves as a literal and symbolic backdrop for a tightly focused selection of paintings and a regiment of 60 Brillo boxes (1969), based on his 1964 "original" one, that parse Faustian themes of commercialism, celebrity worship, and salvation.

Triggering interpretations that fence personal obsessions with death, sensationalism, and our preoccupation with "terror," a theater of the macabre, Americana-style, swings into motion with the pairing of "Skull" paintings (1976) against the Washington Monuments. Ricocheting in a visual sight line from the front to the back of the galleries and activating the museum's enormous scale, the skulls greet us like enormous sentries and draw us through the permanent installation of the mysterious "Shadow" paintings (1978–79). They pull us past Louise Lawler's photographs of Warhol works and deliver us to a rear gallery they share with two oversize "Last Supper" canvases (1986), beyond which are a stash of six hardcore "Disaster" paintings (1963–64). Abetted by the towering cartoon monotony of the Washington Monument, the trail of skulls, and traces of Jesus Christ, the horrific spectacle of multiple real-life death scenes (plus one bloody birth scene) catalyze the Wow! moment and fuel momentary amnesia. Has Warhol ever been presented with such Spielbergian intensity?

Portraits, including the artist's mother
photo: Robin Holland
Portraits, including the artist's mother

Ganster's Funeral is lurid fuchsia; otherwise, the trauma is dished out in black-and-white—a mess of carnage littered with mistakes that characterize Warhol's printing process and impair legibility. The "Disaster" paintings construct us as voyeurs. We want to see every detail, from the driver thrown from an overturned burning vehicle and impaled on a telephone pole to the victim of an ambulance crash who died with her eyes wide open to the man crushed beneath enormous truck tires, with only the sole of his shoe poking out from beneath the treads to show for it. (Did anybody say Robert Gober?) Gee, what would Mom say? Warhol's mother turns up in a nearby portrait gallery that features a couple of dozen diptychs of the usual suspects: superstars who had their "15 minutes of fame," art world intimates, a badass "most wanted man," and a couple of late self-portraits with fright wig.

"Dia's Andy" sets out to explore an extended relationship of patronage involving the institution's early and ongoing support of his work. "Our Andy," however, is a force to be reckoned anew. Back in the day of Dia's patronage, it was productive to compare Warhol and Joseph Beuys; today the dynamic between Warhol and Gober is far more pronounced—and unexplored! Both are political and fatalistic; both are heavily invested in Catholicism and ideas about how deeply commodified our culture has become. But their differences are equally profound. Gober is always looking for love. Warhol gave up on love the minute he got a television set and tape recorder. He once commented, "I don't really know if I was ever capable of love, but after the '60s, I never thought in terms of 'love' again." Gober feels too much; Warhol admits to feeling nothing at all, but chases that thought with a clincher: "It doesn't mean if you don't believe in nothing that it's nothing. You have to treat nothing as if it were something."

 
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