Thirty-seven years after Andy's first exhibition of 32 Campbell's Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the influence of the crown prince of feckless, detached supercool is most definitely still with us. Scratch any Chelsea or Soho dealer today and you will most likely find an ardent fan. A template for an amazing variety of international artists, Warhol's pull has come to seem like artistic and social oxygen, never so important as when one doesn't notice it's there. Museums, it goes without saying, love him, too. He got one named after him in dowdy Pittsburgh, his birthplace; a white-walled coffin full of unsold paintings and prints, plus a host of knickknacks to further document his latter-day physical being in the manner of the Catholic saints.
Other museums around the world scrap tooth and nail for his prodigious, mostly facile output. Like Picasso before him, whose death and far more significant work spawned countless exhibitions and a small rush of public collections (there's hardly a town between Barcelona and Monaco that does not boast a Picasso museum), Warhol appears to be finally entering the phase of terminal enshrinement. Driven by aging bigwig collectors literally dying to secure themselves a place in art history and bigwig museum directors more than happy to oblige, donations of Warhol "masterpieces" are likely to pop up in the near future like so many insipid button mushrooms, crowding major and minor museums throughout the art world forest to bursting. A projected result: the boring surfeit of Warhol images might prove just enough to put the aged, boring, stubbornly undead apparition of Andy to rest.
How else, really, to consider the latest Warhol potboiler, the exhibition of his last, totally lame, unamusing series of paintings and silk screens after Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, now displayed on the second floor of the partly "decommissioned" Guggenheim Soho? (In a sharpie's nod to the increasingly strip-malled neighborhood, the Guggenheim Museum shop is doing a smoking business.) Painted originally as a commission for the Milanese bank Credito-Valtellinese and hung facetiously inside the bank's premises directly in front of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses da Vinci's masterpiece, Warhol's monument-sized pictures were acquired by two top collectors: Peter Brant, a Guggenheim Museum trustee, and Heiner Friedrich, a man responsible for seeding Chelsea's Dia Center for the Arts. Eventually, the gentlemen in question got philanthropical with their absurdly expensive Warhol versions of da Vinci's The Last Supper. As we now know full well, Messrs. Brant and Friedrich recently handed over said properties to Guggenheim director Thomas Krens for a span the museum clubbishly describes as "an extended period of time," providing, in a gesture, a glimpse at a style of museology that owes less to art historical judgment than to deals cooked up over power noshing at restaurants like the Four Seasons.
Of course, dear old Andy never made a secret of being, firstly, a strumpet for the rich and famous, and later, for just the plain rich. Late in his career, Warhol sought and obtained the allegiance of the wealthy by means of machinelike, unfeeling portraits of the wives of Dusseldorf industrialists and millionaire Texas shoe salesmen, among other social and cultural luminaries. By the mid-1980s he'd firmly established himself as court painter to an international group of rich arrivistes with zero interest in art or esthetics. Pictures of Mercedes-Benz cars followed, purportedly as a stab at recapturing radical imagery, then the inane piss paintings (picture a 50-some-year-old Warhol waving his wee genitals at canvases covered in ferrous oxide); finally, desperation and no end of shamelessness begat Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. Nearing the end of the line for Warhol, there was his last series of canvases, executed less than a year before he succumbed to ill health following gallbladder problems (one art world joke making the rounds after Warhol's passing was: "But will it slow down his production?"). Enter the Last Supper works currently on view at the Guggenheim, a set of wooden, thoroughly dispirited and invidious appropriations of what is today undoubtedly one of the world's most reproduced, but least looked at, paintings.
Far from the first shocking, novel images that marked Warhol's rise to celebrity in the 1960s?the gaudy Marilyns, mute Marlons and serial images of gruesome burning wrecks suggesting controversial, ultimately gripping visions of modern affectlessness?the paintings in Andy's last, tired suite are notable for the lumbago-inducing stretch the artist makes to establish his shaky subject matter. Working only from reproductions of da Vinci's original (a look at the real thing, one thinks, might have left even Andy feeling totally inadequate), Warhol treated the portrayal of Christ and his apostles according to the old tried and true Factory method, setting down repeated off-register images in silk screen, while isolating certain details to eventually emphasize his mass-market, advertising-inspired esthetic.
Take, for instance, the huge yawner, Sixty Last Suppers, and the bookcase set of Christ 112 Times, each providing truth in advertising (at approximately 25 feet per) but little in the way of frisson or unexpected visual reward. The exhibition also presents 14 screenprint and tearaway paper collages of Christ blessing the gathered; in copper-, teal- and grape-colored paper, they look bougie enough for any corporate boardroom, radical as a can of peach Nehi in a Mayberry heat wave. Other purportedly more provocative pieces include cartoony versions of da Vinci's Renaissance gem, sporting commercial logos like the Wise Potato Chips eyeball and the Camel cigarette dromedary; a circuitously homoerotic version of Christ and Charles Atlas beside a raving legend that reads, "Be somebody with a body"; and, least of all, a camouflage Last Supper, painted brown and green atop a silkscreen of the Italian original, a gesture most accurately read as Warhol's flip revenge on the past, a pretentious, platitudinous effort to make serious culture, like Leonardo da Vinci's, appear just another one of the platinum-haired one's goofy put-ons.
Warhol's work always traded on the cliquish and inarticulate assumption that art and everything about it was, after all, a gag just like any other; no better, no worse than commercial illustration (which he did) or condom manufacturing (which he would have done, had it given him a sinecure). But while the second proposition may turn out to be morally true in our own age (despite one's own wishes to the contrary), the first jokey notion is difficult to defend for long without its highly corrosive bite eating a tunnel like New York's Holland clean through the joker's facetious conceit. Leaving aside the unsuitability of an image like The Last Supper for Warhol's quick ironic detournement (as opposed to, say, an already cliched, media-generated image like Marilyn's Madonna-whore), Warhol's work can't help but appear anemic, Camembert-soft in age and artlessness, and chiefly ripe for poking fun at after being stuffily enthroned in the world's most highbrow museums. What's good for the goose is certainly good for the gander! Warhol's Last Supper pictures demand a final invocation to a still influential, though increasingly merely pesky ghost: Your 15 minutes are up, Andy. Get your dull old-man's ass off the damned soundstage!
"Andy Warhol: The Last Supper," Guggenheim Soho, 575 Broadway (Prince St.), 423-3550.