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“Andy Warhol: Social Observer”

Time was when the most egregious bit of Andycrap you could pick up at the Corcoran gift shop was not the officially authorized Warhol doll—call it an inaction figure—but the Mao T-shirt. I was tromping around Old Town, I think it was, some years ago in mine when it caught the eye of a graying, clean-cut post-military type who took me for a wet-behind-the-ears socialist who pooh-poohed the indiscretions of tyrants and cared not a fig for the travails of Yanks who’d been in the shit.

“You like Mao?” he growled.

“Nope, Warhol.”

The tendency to conflate depiction and advocacy is pronounced in American culture, most visible wherever controversial subject matter or openly ambivalent rhetoric sparks clashes with gatekeepers who find themselves compelled—whether by conscience or position or that distinctive self-righteousness that barely manages to mask its glee with the grim face of dutifulness—to object. It also rears its head at the Warhol miniretrospective now in its last month at the Corcoran.

Attempting to shield Warhol from accusations that he got too cozy with the smart set in his later years, exhibition organizer Jonathan P. Binstock counters that Andy was political throughout his entire career. Binstock has grouped the objects in “Andy Warhol: Social Observer” under seven headings: Disguise, Death and Disaster, Politics, Cover Stories, Advertising, Celebrity, and Symbolism. But one of the first things he does in his catalog essay is explain that these “discrete categories…also often overlap.”

So why bother?

Because Binstock hopes to rip familiar images from their chronology, recontextualizing them “in an effort to elucidate how social and political phenomena influenced [Warhol’s] work from beginning to end.” Hardly a crying need. That Warhol applied himself to damming and redirecting the media stream that flowed around him (consisting, of course, of “social and political phenomena”) seems less a critical revelation than a description of his artistic MO at its most basic.

At its original venue, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, “Social Observer” appeared opposite a summertime show of paintings by social realist Robert Gwathmey, a former PAFA student. But the Corcoran has no big alumnus-plumping tie-in to explain the exhibition’s curatorial slant and no dog-days excuses for its institutional laziness. Over the past few years, the Corcoran has wandered aimlessly from one exhibit to the next, picking up shows, it would seem, simply because they were available (Reuben Nakian, Catherine Chalmers, Topkapi Palace), valedictorizing the justly overlooked (almost all of the Evelyn Stefansson Nef-funded shows), and preparing a segue for a departing deputy director. (Jack Cowart now helms Roy Lichtenstein’s foundation, having presided over his sculpture and drawings show.) If the museum doesn’t take charge of its contemporary art programming soon, that audacious Gehry addition is going to be seen as a whited sepulcher.

To “Social Observer”‘s cramped, quasi-salon-style arrangement of paintings, drawings, prints, photos, books, magazine covers, a film, a sculpture, and sundry preparatory ephemera, the Corcoran adds a section on Warhol in Washington, filled with autography, photography, news clippings, and a flowery antique hat Andy wore for a photograph by Corcoran student Paul Weiss. The effect is provincial and sycophantic, as the museum and, by extension, the city give proof and effusive thanks that Warhol once graciously held book signings and attended gallery functions in our no-longer-benighted burg.

At best, the local pandering only makes a lackluster show a little bit worse. With its unflattering presentation, awkward unearthings, and, above all, its focus on the things in Warhol’s pictures, “Social Observer” comes off like the yard sale of someone who has picked through Andy’s dumpster. The stronger pieces have trouble defining themselves amid the tendentious clutter, leaving weaker (and often less familiar) ones to come to the fore. Four Abstract Sculpture paintings from the early ’80s, “which have never been exhibited before in a museum exhibition” (wow!) mystifyingly mark a creative cul-de-sac. Hmmm….Could it be that they were abandoned because they look like hell, being the ugliest little stillbirths to spring from an artist whose eye almost never failed him?

But, then, the curator isn’t too adept at figuring out whether a line of inquiry merits further pursuit. The preparatory materials he has gathered suggest at least one fruitful art-historical avenue that goes untraveled. I always wondered why the three young people facing the camera from the wreckage of an overturned car in the 5 Deaths paintings look so alive. The original UPI wire, headlined “Two Die in Collision,” reveals them to be waiting to be extricated from the wreckage. The two sailors killed in the crash are largely hidden from view. Was Warhol deliberately toying with our perceptions? Was there a transcription error? With Binstock on the case, the world may never know.

Recent local Warhol shows benefiting from a sharper focus have more acutely examined the artist’s relationship to the public sphere. When the National Portrait Gallery showed the Flash—November 22, 1963 portfolio in 1998, elegy rose from the media blare; at the Corcoran, the JFK assassination is just another “Cover Story” (oops—it’s under “Politics”). And when, earlier the same year, the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland at College Park staged “Reframing Andy Warhol: Constructing American Myths, Heroes, and Cultural Icons,” both the 10-canvas Suite of Athletes (also shown at the Corcoran) and the Myths series (represented at the Corcoran by a single indexical painting reproducing all 10 figures 10 times) constructed stronger arguments for Warhol’s formal mastery and social engagement, largely because the mode of observation took precedence over both observer and observed.

Particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, Warhol concerned himself with fame, but more with its machinery than its grist. Wherever fame’s turnings were most robust, he followed. Warhol claimed (and for once I’ll take him at face value) that he did Mao because Mao was the most famous man in the world. He courted Imelda Marcos, albeit unsuccessfully, because, as former Interview editor Bob Colacello writes, “unlike President Ford, or any other leader of a democratic nation, Imelda Marcos really could order up scores of her silk-screened likeness, for every cabinet member’s office, governor’s mansion, and ambassador’s residence, fulfilling one of Andy’s fondest fantasies: the single commission that miraculously multiplied ad infinitum.” Binstock finds it necessary to excuse these overtures, claiming, “Warhol’s motivations were financial rather than political.” But it’s plausible that although Warhol certainly wouldn’t have objected to the paycheck, he could have been interested mainly in entering an arena where his trademark repetitions would be organically driven by the forces of power already in play in a dictatorship. In other words, his motivations were political in that he wished to manipulate a mode of political image-mongering otherwise unavailable to him, but they were not political in the sense of constituting an endorsement of the Philippine regime.

If the absurdly powerful provided one kind of dance for Warhol to choreograph, celebrities briefly blessed with youth and beauty offered another. One vitrined Interview cover features Chris Atkins, whose name and face drew a blank with me until I Googled him and Phred’s Beautiful Boys placed him opposite Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. (Sorry—to me, Emmeline will forever be Jean Simmons.) But despite Warhol’s oft-remarked-upon Catholicism, “Social Observer” takes virtually no notice of the devotional overtones of his regard of celebrity. And yet it is precisely because of the implicit parallels he drew between the American-manufactured gods and goddesses and the pantheon of Christian saints that we remember Marilyn, for example, as we do. Historically speaking, Elvis would have made the grade, Andy or no, but Marilyn has maintained her standing largely through Warhol’s intercession. He enshrined her quickly, when the wound of her death was still fresh, and made her immortal. She has become inseparable from his remembrance of her.

Binstock also fails to remark on the significance of Warhol’s obsession with those personages who were more famous for being famous than for anything they themselves had done: Bianca Jagger, Mickey Mouse, even Jackie O. If “Social Observer” comes to stand as a model for future displays of Warholiana, Andy risks joining their company. His reputation is presently in a dicey spot. If anything, he’s overexposed. His prophecies have become truisms: You can’t read the Style section or watch National Enquirer’s Uncovered without running into knowing, if unattributed, applications of his “15 minutes” thesis. And when Maurice Berger’s catalog essay tries to educate us about how sexually liberating Warhol’s vision was for his repressed, bourgeois times, stopping to remind us of the related importance of everyone from Freud to Jack Smith, it’s as if he’s lecturing an audience imported from Saturn, populated by creatures that hadn’t already lived through the Age of Andy.

Maybe the timing’s all wrong for a broad, “social” look at Warhol. Fifty years hence, he’ll be our Daumier; right now, our awareness is so thoroughly Warholian that we can no longer see Andy looking at us. Any world that conjured up JFK as its shining knight and Andy as its gnomic seer had to have been a naive one, convinced of its importance but utterly devoid of self-consciousness. Nearly four decades after Warhol’s emergence, everything has been turned on its head. We doubt the importance of anything we do and pick at our flaws without mercy. Irony has trickled down and filled the national cup; it’s no longer a wry underdog’s corrective, but, in bastard form, the dominant mode of discourse.

Or was that 15 minutes ago?

Warhol held up a mirror to postwar American life, one backed with an unlikely alloy of blankness and flamboyance, until we forgot that anybody was behind it.CP