Warhol’s America at the Whitney

By Sarah Balcombe

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” — Andy Warhol, America, 1985

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Flowers, soup cans and Brillo boxes are most commonly associated with Warhol and it is these ironic silkscreens, paintings and sculptures for which he is best known. Yet it is Warhol’s narrative of modern culture which is truly engaging and paradoxical. A product of the establishment and anti-establishment, Warhol strove to portray celebrity icons, and also those less celebrated.

With his effectual re-posting of Charles Moore’s photograph of Birmingham Alabama’s riots in Mustard Race Riot, 1963 above, his Ladies and Gentlemen series, 1975, below,


featuring trans-rights activists and his Jean-Michel Basquiat collaborations, see Paramount, 1984-5, below, Warhol acknowledged the less acknowledged, and fringe communities whilst continuing a preoccupation with capitalism and Hollywood.



Although Warhol continued to use repetition as an aesthetic device and a commentary on monetary value, he introduced a further element of abstraction, as shown in his Sixty-Three White Mona Lisa’s, 1979, above, a sophisticated adaption of his earlier Thirty Are Better Than One, 1963, below, utilizing pattern and paint to obscure content.


In Camouflage Last Supper 1986, below, 


Warhol similarly obscures another Leonardo da Vinci iconic painting, with the stronger fatigue pattern almost completely overwhelming the content. This obscurification can be seen as a more poignant expression of loss during the height of the AIDS crisis and shows a continuation of his fascination  with pattern, abstraction and material as demonstrated in his experimental Shadow (Diamond Dust) and Oxidation Paintings in the late 1970s. 


Shadow (Diamond Dust), 1979-9, above.

Oxidation Painting, 1978, Gold, metallic, pigment and urine on linen, below.


Visit Andy Warhol- From A to B and Back Again at the Whitney, before its closing on Sunday, to see another side of the artist. His work is so compelling and progressive that it bizarrely renders subsequent works by artists such as YBA’s Damien Hirst obsolete. The post-Warhol detached series of dots, butterflies, formaldehyde sharks and diamond encrusted skulls of the 1990s are a poor substitute to Warhol’s profound, yet obscured, expression of self, both in society and out of it.


Last chance to see: Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends (through Sep 17th MOMA)

The overwhelming takeaway impression of MOMAs Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends is the sheer volume of his work. The fact that he collaborated with many friends (and lovers, though MOMA fails to disclose this nature of their relationships) does not detract from the fact that he was in the driving seat, throughout, initiating and directing these opportunities, nudging these experiments into the realms of art, and always, always questioning.

The exhibition’s entrance warrants further examination. Humorous and welcoming, Rauschenberg’s playful opening piece, Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987),


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Roy Lichenstein’s  Drowning Girl (1963) (top),  John Chamberlain’s Tomahawak Nolan (1965) (above), and Jasper Johns’ iconic Flag (1954-55) (below),

Johns.jpgare displayed amongst a plethora of delicious pre-Instagram, pre-Koons, visually intoxicating Pop Art classics.

All the enfants terribles of that decade, are presented here, continued by , James Rosenquist’s unsettling Marilyn Monroe, I (1962), Claes Oldenburg’s tragi-comic Giant Soft Fan (1966-7), and Andy Warhol’s 32 canvases, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) all jostling for attention. This context that MOMA presents is essential and yet, what is surprising is that it proves inconsequential.  What becomes apparent very quickly, amongst the curated assemblage of over 250 pieces of Rauschenberg’s work, is that Rauschenberg created his own context, re-defining Abstract-Expressionism, and setting the gold standard for generations of future artists.

Optimism prevails, from the tentative Blueprints (1949-51) with their startling vulnerability, a collaboration with Susan Weil, to whom he was married for a couple of years in the early 1950s, to the ironic and innovative Automobile Tire Print (both 1953) collaboration with John Cage. Rauschenberg learnt the techniques of photograms from Weil, silkscreen painting from Warhol (early 1960s) and invented his own method of transferring photographing images. Prior to that his Erased De Kooning Drawing  (1953) and the repainting of his “White Painting” by the minimalist Brice Marden examined the notion of permanence, line, memory and legacy. Following the success of his combine and silkscreen series, (Venice Biennale, 1964) he ordered the destruction of his 150+ silk screen frames, to avoid any temptation of repetition.

It was this constant search for original representation that imbues this exhibition with such a strong sense of relevance. Lacking the cynicism of the late 90s, when Tracy Emin’s My Bed 1998 and Damien Hirst’s taxidermied sharks and sheep were snapped up by collector Charles Saatchi, Rauschenberg’s incorporation of found objects in his Combines, were nevertheless imbued with coded messages. The patchwork quilt and lover autographed pillow in Bed (1955), the Greek mythology inspired bald-eagle in Canyon (1959) (below)


and the tyre truncated goat in Monogram (1959), allude to his relationships with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. Eager to promote the work of his friends and lovers, he also presented a miniature John’s flag and Weil’s landscape in his Short Circuit (1955), as a way to promote new artists, despite the gallery excluding their submissions. This minor but significant act of simultaneous subversion and generosity was apparently typical of Rauschenberg, who pushed the boundaries of accepted norms in art, by using unusual materials, techniques, technical installations and unique collaborations.

His decision to include images of JFK in his silkscreen assemblage, Radioactive 1 (1964) (below),

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following Kennedy’s assassination, reflects a shift from Rauschenberg hinting at his personal priorities, to his political ones. Whilst darker political moments are shown in his review of the ten year cycle of violence, in Signs (1970), a sense of optimism manages to breakthrough with his Duchamp-esque bathtub, Sor Aqua (Venetian),

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and his gurgling dancing mud in the technically complex Mud Muse (1968-71).

Supporting a worldwide community of artists remained paramount to Rauschenberg who set up a foundation to reduce their isolation and simultaneously learn from their global crafts. Yet the continuation and definition of the American dream remained paramount to his art. The culmination of this exhibition, a collection of street signs casually strewn on a podium, can be seen as an ode to Jack Kerouac and Steve McQueen. Nothing suggests the love of the open road and the quest of the American Dream more than Urban Katydid (Glut) (1986) (below).


No artistic review of the second half of the 20th century is complete without referencing Rauschenberg, and it is likely that this exhibition will ensure that his legacy of innovation, collaboration, technical confidence, environmental and social responsibility is more than enough for millennials to appreciate that there was world wide web connectivity prior to the internet, and its name was Rauschenberg.