Museum Spotlight: Andy Warhol at the MoMA

Andy Warhol Interview (w/ Starr Figura)


You don’t have to be well plugged into the world of art to know that Andy Warhol was, and still is, a big deal. An American artist known for using many types of media in his work, including hand drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, silk screening, sculpture, film, and music, Warhol remains one of the most influential figures in contemporary art and culture more than twenty years after his death, particularly in the visual art movement known as pop art. At the Museum of Modern Art, a fascinating new exhibit explores Warhol’s signature work, Campbell’s Soup Cans, which marked a breakthrough for the famed artist. New York City Monthly was honored to speak recently with the organizer and curator of the exhibit, Starr Figura…

There’s no disputing Andy Warhol as an American icon. At what point in his career do you think he was solidified as such?

I think that the point in his career when he’s solidified as such happens really just after he finishes the Campbell’s Soup Cans. The Campbell’s Soup Cans, which is the centerpiece of this exhibition, can almost be seen as this pivotal moment in his career where he becomes this icon. So he’s actually not a household name yet when he makes those and when he first exhibits them in 1962, but shortly after that, “Pop Art” sort of explodes as a cultural phenomenon in the United States and he becomes one of the key figures associated with that phenomenon and he becomes a very famous and important figure in American art.

Although he was born in Pittsburgh, he became an iconic NYC figure. What role did the city play in inspiring Warhol?

I think New York City was a big inspiration for him. At that time it was, just as it is today, a hub for the art world and also for the advertising world, which is where he got his start in New York City, so it helped launch his career as a commercial artist.

Following up about his career in advertising, do you think there is a period of time or a certain piece where we’re able to see his work begin to transition from an advertising look to a more artistic approach?

Yes, I think that you see that starting around 1960- 61 and into 1962 with the Soup Cans, so the soup cans are very much a part of that transition and the breakthrough to the Andy Warhol that we know.

When at the forefront of the Pop art movement did Warhol face critic adversity and how was it initially received by the general public?

I think from the very beginning there were critics and members of the public who disparaged it and didn’t think it was a valid direction for fine art. So it was really from the beginning, and at the same time there were people who championed it and who thought it was a great reflection of contemporary society. So from the beginning there was a debate, that even maybe continues to a certain degree today.

Do you think his work became a response to these reactions?

Well he always wanted to be famous, so I think the attention was gratifying for him. I don’t think any of the negative criticism affected the course of his art and I think he had people who understood his art that supported him and that certainly encouraged him to continue in the direction he was headed.

Some of his works are among the most expensive paintings ever sold, what is it about his art that has put him in the company of the world’s greatest artists?

I think he’s an artist whose work is iconic – and the soup cans in particular are a landmark because they mark a major shift in the way art can be understood and the way that we understand that art can be made and what an appropriate subject matter for art is, and it also marks a shift in our culture and Warhol captured that.

Was the layout of the exhibition arranged in any particular way?

The exhibition begins with work from the early 50s, so it starts with a small gallery of work from the 50s when he was still a commercial artist. Then the second gallery is the soup cans installation and the third gallery is what happens just after he finishes his soup cans between the years of 1962 and 1967, which is really a high point in his career as an artist, and sort of the high point of the pop art movement, which he obviously represents.

Campbell’s Soup Cans is such a well-known piece, what’s going to be unique for people who view it at this exhibit?

You usually see them in a grid in our galleries, or if they have been in other shows over the years. But we’re installing them a little differently this time, which is in a line in their own gallery and we’re also putting them on a small shelf, and this echoes the way they were first exhibited in 1962 when Warhol had his first solo gallery exhibition of paintings at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. They were installed in a line on a shelf, like paintings but also like products in a store. They have this very mechanical look to them – he tried to make them look almost like they were manufactured in a factory because they’re so mechanical looking, but in fact they’re handmade, and I think in our installation, because you see them in a line – sort of one by one, you really focus on how they look as individual paintings and what a large and impressive series it is.