Relevant and significant in these image-obsessed times, Andy Warhol receives fresh examination in a retrospective exhibition that contains little-known as well as familiar works by the artist and social observer known for his paintings of soup cans and movie stars and his phrase “15 minutes of fame.”
The exhibition, “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” runs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 2.
Warhol (1928-1987) blurred the boundaries between commercial and fine art. He employed the silkscreen technique when it was rarely used in noncommercial art. He keenly understood the allure and effect of images, and he appropriated images from consumer culture. He was openly gay before the gay-rights era.
These and other elements are covered in the retrospective, which SFMOMA is presenting on three floors. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, it contains about 300 pieces of art by Warhol, who began his career as an advertising illustrator and become a leading figure in pop art and an iconic art-world personality.
The fourth floor is a good place to start. Here, a career-spanning presentation begins by transporting us back to the 1960s world of pop art — cool, conceptual, detached and inspired by popular culture and consumer products.
“Superman” (1961) and “Dick Tracy” (1961) represent this period, as do paintings, many containing repeated imagery, of Coke bottles, soup cans and dollar bills and the sculpture “Brillo Boxes” (1969, version of 1964 original).
Next up are silkscreen portraits of celebrated people — Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and others. Highlights include “Ethel Scull 36 Times” (1963). Self-portraits, featuring the impenetrable facade put forth by the artist, too, are on view.
Other works depict social issues and dark subjects — the civil-rights struggle, electric chairs, tragic accidents.
Nearby galleries contain post-pop work: a large portrait of Chairman Mao (1972); the fun balloon installation “Silver Clouds” (1966); “Flower” paintings (1964) displayed on “Cow Wallpaper” (1966); a blue “Skull” (1976) painting.
Little-known experiments with abstraction — a stacked Mylar and sculpture (1970); two “Rorschach” paintings (1984) — enhance the prevailing perception of Warhol’s artistic range.
Photographs and paintings of trans women and drag queens in 1970s New York illustrate Warhol’s interest in the complexity of gender identity.
Collaborative works include paintings created with 1980s artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
Film and video projects feature “superstars” from the Factory, Warhol’s studio and place-to-be.
On floors two and five, look for commercial-art drawings by Warhol, Warhol photography and 1970s silkscreen portraits.
The latter, criticized by some as little more than lucrative work for the artist, but looking attractive on the wall regardless, feature everyone from Aretha Franklin to Liza Minnelli to Muhammad Ali.
IF YOU GO
Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, floors 2, 4 and 5, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays); through Sept. 2
Tickets: $31 to $37; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org