For someone who called himself “a deeply superficial person,” Andy Warhol was anything but. A child of the ’50s, this son of Slovakian immigrants obsessed over celebrity and commercialism, politics and money, death and destruction.
He turned his obsessions into art, and from the 1960s on, became one of the most recognizable people in the world: Granted, his white fright-wig helped. Even now, 31 years after his death, he’s yet to leave the stage.
Which brings us to “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again.” Opening Monday at the Whitney, this sprawling retrospective fills the museum’s entire fifth floor and overflows onto the third and first with works in many mediums — oil, pastel and pencil, film and photographs, videos and audiotapes and even Plexiglas. That last holds the silk-screened image of a young and beautiful John Giorno, whose sleeping, naked self Warhol filmed for all 320 minutes of “Sleep.” And since music was another of his loves, there’s also the album cover for the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” — Warhol came up with the idea for that denim crotch overlaid with a real, working zipper.
And yes, there are Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, and multiple Maos, Marilyns, Madonnas and Warhol himself, the godfather of the selfie generation.
In all, the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo, who worked briefly with Warhol toward the end of his prolific life, selected some 350 pieces that show the range and breadth of his achievements. Many are on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the artist’s hometown.
“He always was confident, and he always knew what he wanted,” says Warhol’s nephew James Warhola, the genial children’s book illustrator who kept the family’s original surname. He tells The Post that, years before Warhol had a Factory-full of helpers, he and his brother and sister used to stretch his canvases.
“We’d pick things up off the floor and say, ‘Uncle Andy, can we have this?’” The answer was usually yes.
“He had a great sense of humor and was conversant,” Warhola adds. “He wasn’t the mysterious, strange person you see in his films.”
Warhola says his favorite piece in the show is “Living Room.” Painted in 1948, when Warhol was 20, its rocking chair, brick fireplace and overall coziness suggest a meeting of Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” and the cover of that 1947 children’s classic, “Goodnight Moon.”
Elsewhere are other samples of early Warhol. Fascinated by print, the young artist made his own mock newspapers decades before he re-imagined the front pages of The New York Post. The drawings he made of shoes and handbags during his advertising days are witty and engaging. Even then, you can see his genius for cropping and coloring.
“Art is what you can get away with,” Warhol liked to say, a thought that comes to mind when you’re faced with his cow wallpaper. (He loved it, and insisted it be the backdrop for all the works in his 1971 Whitney retrospective.) An audiotape filled with what sounds like outtakes from an orgy turns out to be, the label tells us, a conversation on filmmaking between Warhol and It girl Edie Sedgwick. And a short film of a drag queen named Mario licking a banana may not please the prudish.
Still, there’s so much to make you smile — including a Danish filmmaker’s 1982 movie short of Warhol unwrapping and eating a Whopper, dipping it now and then into a puddle of Heinz ketchup. It’s also fun to see what random bits constituted one of the artist’s 600 or so “time capsules.” Piled up under glass are, among many other things, a Lou Reed album, two art books, a cabaret program and what may or may not be Yves Saint Laurent’s autograph.
Later on, after decades of war, assassinations and the AIDS crisis, Warhol’s art grew dark. He did a whole series focusing on death and destruction, and his 1978 self-portraits depict him with a skull over his head. Ten years earlier, a crazed acquaintance had stormed his Union Square office and shot him, the bullets ripping his stomach, liver and lungs.
Warhol spent two months in the hospital but never really recovered. Hanging in the Whitney’s permanent collection is a wonderful painting of him by his friend, Alice Neel: Shirtless, pocked with wounds and cinched into the corset he was forced to wear for the rest of his life, to keep his internal organs together, Warhol is the picture of vulnerability.
He died in 1987, at 58, after gallbladder surgery, his body wracked from too much speed and too little sleep. By then he was rich, and the museum’s gift shop, brimming with $59 T-shirts, a $70 exhibition catalog and $220 espresso sets, would have pleased him. More than that, the adoring show wrapped around it would have made him proud.
“Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” opening Monday (through March 31) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., Whitney.org
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