T he current strength of the Warhol prints market, now at its peak, reflects today’s “Warholmania”. We watched with rapt attention from our London saleroom in March as a complete set of Warhol’s ten Marilyn screenprints sold for £2.3 million, followed swiftly by the success of a luminous Campbell Soup I set, which achieved a record £849,000. These unprecedented Warhol prints sales have coincided with the 90th anniversary of the artist’s birthday, an occasion many museums and galleries are marking with blockbuster exhibitions.
While eagerly awaiting the launch of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s much-anticipated retrospective Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again, we spoke to Senior Curatorial Assistant Christie Mitchell about what makes his prints so timeless. The first retrospective curated by an American institution since 1989, the Whitney’s landmark show promises to “[introduce] a Warhol for the 21st century” by reconsidering his work across all media, taking into account the latest research and findings.
Faced with the daunting task of selecting a limited number of prints to represent Warhol’s vast printed oeuvre, Mitchell explained that the curatorial team sought examples that might best relate to the themes the retrospective considers more widely: Warhol's “interest in abstraction, the topicality of his subject matter, and his innovative display techniques.”
The diverse range of lithographs and screenprints now on view at the Whitney demonstrate the artist’s development and inventiveness as a printmaker. Visitors to the museum can trace Warhol’s mastery of various printmaking techniques by comparing the coarseness of the early lithograph Tattooed Woman Holding A Rose, which served as the young artist’s calling card in the 1950’s, to the finesse of his 1972 Sunset screenprints, each a unique variant in a total edition of 632, which could well have served as inspiration for our favourite Instagram filters.
A gallery in the retrospective dedicated to Warhol’s experimental work of the early 1970s, featuring all things Mao: his printed wall paper, Xerox prints, a drawing and a monumental painting, also speaks to our continuing fascination with cult icons. Long before the World Wide Web and social media were introduced, Warhol questioned society’s celebrity worship by repeatedly giving Mao’s portrait the Hollywood treatment in garish and alluring colours.
“Warhol’s training as a commercial artist and his rigorous formalist approach pre-figure our image obsessed culture,” Mitchell mused, “in retrospect we can see the roots of selfie-mania, reality television, and internet discourse…all aspects of our present moment that were only nascent during his lifetime.”
At every stage of his printmaking career, Warhol imbued his work with social commentary that, remarkably, still resonates. This is particularly evident in his 1968 Flash-November 22, 1963 portfolio, a later reflection on the media attention surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Together with the “headline paintings” featured in the retrospective, these works highlight key ideas and events that we see reflected in the news today.
Mitchell attributes Warhol’s lasting appeal to this “uncanny ability to select searing images that resonate with audiences and act on multiples levels,” which we have to agree makes his work “just as relevant in our own time.”
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