It don’t matter what my name isAJR, I’m Not Famous
I don’t got one, I’m not famous, no
And I don’t hate it, no
You never heard of me
Or the weird shit I do and say
That’s my favorite thing
That I’m not famous, no
Last week I saw the first major retrospective of Warhol’s work in 30 years, the Whitney’s Andy Warhol A to B and Back Again masterfully curated by Donna De Salvo. It was at The Art Institute of Chicago, the same place where I saw the 1989 retrospective.
I walked away from the ’89 show energized — the exhibit introduced me to Warhol as a cultural critic and cultural catalyst. He nailed it. He understood how it worked: how brands, celebrities, and repetition were the beating heart of our way of life. Cheerfully, he conveyed the boredom and conformity of mid-century America. Warhol not only got it but he worked it. He made an icon of himself and improbably succeeded in becoming the most famous artist of the 20th century.
Just like us
In 2019, the entry hall for Andy Warhol A to B and Back Again is lined with celebrity portraits and Instagram-perfect cow wallpaper. Many have noted how Warhol anticipated social media and it’s impossible not to think of Warhol’s one-liner, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Andy scores again.
Throughout the show, curator De Salvo makes Warhol relateable by introducing us to so many facets of his identity. He was, after all, his immigrant mother’s son, an artist, a gay man, a working stiff, a Hollywood fan, a practicing Catholic, an enthusiastic entrepreneur, a supermarket shopper and apparently an avid reader of newspapers and tabloids. And if you can’t relate to any of that, there’s always Warhol the Unloved, the shy and awkward outsider.
By showing us less familiar work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, de Salvo creates a sense of intimacy that I don’t generally associate with Warhol and his artwork. Many of these pieces were painstakingly made by hand and reveal Warhol’s sexual longing for men, at a time when being openly gay was to invite ostracism or worse. But while all these pieces are intimate, they are not all erotic. Charmingly, De Salvo shares a drawing by Andy’s mother that belies a fun and playful familial bond. I am love-struck by the 1964 self-portrait in black, grey and pink where the delicate Warhol juts his chin out and stares us down, defiant.
Drawing us in
In the next room, a never-aired (thank goodness!) TV commercial Warhol made for a constipation remedy loudly drones on about “tension, nerves, or irregular living” perfectly describing the worse days of an advertising life (at least from the perspective of this agency veteran). With this, De Salvo conveys the monotony of Warhol’s life at the time, an interesting context for famous and familiar Campbell’s Soup Cans, Brillo Pads, Coke Bottles, and S&H Green Stamps.
Moving to the next gallery, I was a little relieved to see Warhol looking out on his world and commenting on all things topical. Surely, here you can find a personal connection to Warhol here, even if it is something as trivial as being a fan of Elvis or having mourned Marilyn Monroe? And here we are with death and disaster with Warhol reflecting on tragedies–both tabloid and historical. What could be more relatable than death, a fate we all surely share?
The challenging part
The 15-foot tall painting of Mao was placed almost like a gate between Warhol’s greatest hits and his less famous later work. For me, Mao was one of the most compelling pieces in the show. I found the playfully embellished image of Mao’s face calming — admiring the painterly brush strokes in the lower left — all the while a little voice in my head was screaming at me that Mao’s cultural revolution killed 45 million people in 4 years. It didn’t compute.
After Mao, much of the wry detachment in Warhol’s work seems to have fallen away, and we see the same kind of earnestness in the work from the 1950s. Warhol’s work is still topical but also deeply personal, confessional even, summoning up the utter terror many of us felt with the nuclear threat and AIDS in the 1980s.
Warhol returned to the theme of death and again and again, but religious references that had been might have been subtle now became obvious, even monumental, with Camoflague Last Supper. The resplendent 63 Mona Lisas reminded this Catholic girl of the veneration of Mary. I had to rethink my early understanding of Warhol as a cultural critic and catalyst and conclude that his art was informed by the symbols and rites of his religious faith, not by social theory.
What’s left to learn
Warhol may have been more prescient than we know. In a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to grab the spotlight, just how does one stand out? We are raising a generation of kids who spend endless hours watching their peers broadcast videos filmed from their bedrooms, and many of them aspire to put themselves out there on YouTube as well. These kids have been photographed and presented on social media since they were born, and I doubt that many of them even notice they are carrying the weight of a public persona.
Aside from the Warhol show, my other cultural excursion last week happened to be taking my 10-year-old to see a concert by his favorite band, the wildly popular AJR. This year, their album made it to Number 1 on the Top Rock Albums chart, and they have been nominated for the Teen Choice Awards, as well as Best New Boy Band. In a sense, AJR is Gen Z’s answer to ‘NSync or the Backstreet Boys. Even though AJR’s core demographic may still be in elementary school, they are hardly unsophisticated.
Brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan (AJR, get it?) are remarkable for the way they strive not to set themselves apart from their audience. At the concert, Jack said that the purpose of The Neotheater Tour was not to make the audience forget their troubles, but rather to create some time to collectively wallow in shared struggles, perhaps so “we could laugh about it all tomorrow“?
This young band’s approach to songwriting is not unlike Warhol’s approach to visual art in his later years. Unlike personalities that Warhol documented, they are not positioning themselves as rock icons, but instead, they have given themselves the job of connecting to other human beings–in spite of being “oh, different, so different” as they sing in the song, Wow, I’m Not Crazy.
Ryan has said that an AJR song is defined by being highly relatable and also novel–eschewing any pop music formulas. With Neotheater, the brothers are relating their strugglings in the wilderness between childhood and adulthood. And sometimes this can get a little weird. Is this approach authentic or strategic? Is it heartfelt, or just a marketing ploy? In songs and interviews, AJR gamely shares so much about the band as their job and as a business that even asking this question seems beside the point. Remind you of anyone, folks?
If you are in Chicago, you can see A to B and Back Again at the Art Institute until January 26, 2020. As a bonus, Donna De Salvo will be giving a talk on November 20. Also, AJR is playing the Aragon Ballroom on November 23. Parental disclaimer: I have many fond memories of shows at the Aragon, I’m not sure I’d take younger teens or tweens there.