by Gillian Koptik
As I entered the Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibit, “From A to B and Back Again,” I didn’t know much about Andy Warhol other than his name. But the exhibit is so substantial, there was a lot to learn.
Andy Warhola (later Warhol) was born in Pittsburgh in 1928, and raised Catholic. He went to Carnegie Mellon University for commercial art, and earned his BFA in pictorial design. In the early 1960s, Warhol started exhibiting his work, which has been most famously called “pop art” on both the east and west coasts. In 1965, Warhol began focusing on his career as a filmmaker, but continued painting.
On June 3, 1968 he was shot and was briefly proclaimed dead. After taking some time to recover from these brutal injuries, he became more invested in his art than he had ever been before.
Throughout the 1970s he focused on reexamining still lifes and portraits, some of which he’s most known for now. In the late ’70s to the end of his life, Warhol continued to experiment with abstractions in his art, while calling regularly upon his previous styles and mediums.
I’ve been to a handful of the larger shows at the Art Institute, as well as Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, but I’ve never seen anything quite like “From A to B And Back Again.” When you first walk up to the exhibit, you step into a large room covered floor to ceiling in Warhol’s “Cow” screen-printed as wallpaper. It’s vibrant, with hundreds of large pink cows against a bright yellow background. At the top of the room are celebrity portraits — which I knew him best for — and they were even more amazing in person.
The next room showcases his pop art, or the commercial art he made. He would make a silkscreen, then screen print the same label over and over again, applying different pressure and using different amounts of ink for each application. He did this with lots of commercially popular products, using different color schemes and canvas sizes to showcase the work. (Think: Campbell’s soup.)
Moving through the exhibit, you encounter works of art as they correspond with Warhol’s life. There’s a large window allowing the viewer to see into the next larger room, which makes the space feel fluid. After his more famous work, the exhibit takes on his early, and more private art.
These are some of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibit. Pen drawings and illustrations Warhol did in his own time and for commercial clients fill an entire wall. It’s wonderful to see his work stripped of mixed mediums and experimental techniques.
But no matter the era, Warhol’s work was always rooted in color. Almost every piece in the exhibit has color, and uses color to highlight the subject of the piece.
The most eye-catching piece in the exhibit is the 15-foot portrait of Mao Zendong, titled “Mao.” The reason it’s the most eye-catching, other than its height, is because he used color to exaggerate and accentuate Mao’s features. He painted on makeup and added bright yellows and greens to the bottom of the silkscreened portrait.
This piece was deservedly at the center of the exhibit. Examining every brush stroke Warhol added to the screen print allows the viewer to see exactly what Warhol was thinking, and just how outside the box his style was. The simplicity of the blue background amidst the chaos grounds the viewer, while still allowing for one to get lost in the beauty and the careful details of the whole piece.
Continuing through the installation, the viewer can see Warhol’s art style change and grow. The colors get brighter, the canvases get bigger, and the mediums get more experimental — but he always uses color to highlight his vision.
There’s also a small room that showcases all of his short films, and other non-canvased art he made. The room is dark, like a small blackbox, and the short films are all projected onto a wall, one at a time. There are over 30 minutes of short film, so if there’s one in particular you want to see, you have to make sure to time it right.
It was nice to see the films Warhol had worked on, but it didn’t feel like there was enough of an explanation to the purpose of each film, and I would’ve loved some backstory on the reasoning for the films.
Overall, the exhibit was truly amazing. Each piece of art, from his more experimental pieces like the “Oxidation” series, alongside his sketchbook styled drawings gave me a lot of perspective on Warhol on his contribution to the art world.
The setup of the exhibit kept me more engaged than I usually am when I go to art exhibits, and the sequencing of all the pieces made me feel like I was following Warhol directly. It was wonderful to see all of his art in the same place, and see how he grew as an artist over multiple decades.
“From A to B and Back Again” is open until January 26, 2020, at the Art Institute of Chicago (11 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603) with $7 special exhibit ticket after price of admission.