In January 1979, when Andy Warhol first showed "Shadows," a room-size installation made up of scores of silkscreen paintings, one critical observer of the exhibition was concise:
"The show only looks good because it's so big," he wrote.
The shadow paintings feature enigmatic blurs of dark and light in various colors. They filled the long center room of a large gallery in New York City's Soho neighborhood, on West Broadway just off Spring Street, where the dealer acquired them for a private foundation with which he was involved. The foundation, later known as Dia, still owns the paintings.
Vapid and pretentious, the overblown installation ranks among the worst works Warhol made. There are 102 canvases, each one just over 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
Even the big Soho room wasn't quite large enough to accommodate them all. (The full installation requires at least 442 linear feet.) Not until 2012, for a show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., were all the paintings installed together for the first time.
Now, they've all been installed again — this time at the Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA director Philippe Vergne, former Dia director, arranged the loan. The canvases are hung edge-to-edge and low to the floor, so that they ring several MOCA rooms. Not quite half the museum's exhibition space is filled, but they look as lame as ever.
No one knows for sure what the sources of the shadows are. Of seven or eight compositions, two dominate: a tall, narrow form called "the peak," and a shorter, stubbier one known as "the cap."
The monochrome colors include eggplant, chartreuse, Carmine red, yellow, midnight blue, silver and 11 more, plus lots of black. The 1979 observer who thought the "Shadows" only looked good because the show was so large also described it as "disco décor," not art.
Ironic or not, he was right on both counts. Of course, that astute critic was Warhol himself, writing in his diary and speaking to an interviewer.
The installation's vast size lends passing interest, if only because the claim that "bigger is better" is so American. But despite 102 paintings, there's next to nothing to look at. The jagged color and fuzzy sweeps of ebony are lifeless.
Disco is also dead, but "Shadows" forms an irresistible backdrop for MOCA visitors to take selfies and cellphone snapshots. It's like being at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard with Warhol paintings filling in for famous cartoon characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk.
Conventional wisdom used to be that, with a few exceptions, the quality of Warhol's work took a steep dive after about 1968. "Shadows" came a decade later, when he was 50.
But conventional wisdom has been overrun by Warhol's rise as the most influential artist of the last half-century. Everything he did — good, bad or indifferent — is now an object of intense scrutiny. Add today's stratospheric art market, where he hovers near the top, and even dull mediocrity hums with the blunt authority of vast wealth. The show looks expensive.
"Shadows" does have a subject. The installation riffs on Robert Rauschenberg's multi-panel "White Paintings," a 1951 series that remains controversial to this day. They are just what the title describes — modular vertical canvases painted flat white, without brushwork or any image, as if untouched by human hands.
If something were to mar the pristine surface, then a studio assistant could simply remake it according to Rauschenberg's specifications. They come in one-, two-, three-, four- and seven-panel versions, suggesting potentially infinite expanse.
The "White Paintings" were a full-frontal attack on Abstract Expressionist art. They refused its belief that painting is primarily meaningful as a unique, autobiographical product of an artist's gestural hand.
Instead, Rauschenberg compared his paintings to clocks. Look closely enough, and subtle changes in light and shadow passing across them might indicate what time of day it was. Composer John Cage famously referred to the paintings as "airports for lights, shadows and particles" that "caught whatever fell on them."
Warhol's "Shadows" merely pictures that.
Rauschenberg gets short shrift as an inspiration in the Warhol literature — the two artists were almost the same age — but when Warhol was still struggling to gain recognition, he sought to emulate Rauschenberg's success. In 1963, just as Warhol's career was finally beginning to percolate, he produced a silkscreen series using Rauschenberg family photographs. Its pointed title: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."
Warhol also followed the lead of Rauschenberg (and Jasper Johns) in tearing down the domineering premises of Abstract Expressionism. As a hugely successful commercial artist in the advertising world, he knew how to make sharp, witty pictures to represent abstract ideas. His brilliant 1960s Pop paintings made mincemeat of Abstract Expressionism's deeply entrenched clichés.
The Campbell's soup can paintings made fun of Willem de Kooning's description of his own abstract paintings as "soup." The paint-by-numbers pictures happily accepted the popular dismissal that a child could make abstract art, while invoking Marcel Duchamp's dictum that the audience completes the art.
The "Dance Diagrams" traced the fancy footwork of Jackson Pollock making drip paintings, while the bloody car crashes showed how Pollock had died. His post-suicide portraits of troubled Marilyn Monroe and post-assassination portraits of grieving Jackie Kennedy pictured the New York avant-garde's insistence that "the tragic and the timeless" was great art's truest subject.
Likewise, Warhol's silkscreen printing technique replaced individual imagination with mass-produced pictures of abstract ideas. Photographs were masquerading as paintings.
Maybe Warhol had photography inventor William Henry Fox Talbot in mind when he chose shadows for an environmental painting. Talbot famously described his 1839 invention of the photographic negative as "the art of fixing a shadow," and by 1978 camera images had certainly become ubiquitous.
More likely, he was just attuned to the astute shadow-comment made by Cage, Rauschenberg's close friend and frequent collaborator. Warhol had already turned to the renegade composer's gnomic wisdom once before.
In 1963, as New York state performed its last two executions of incarcerated criminals, he chose to silkscreen a photograph of an electric chair that prominently features an overhead sign demanding "silence." That was the title of Cage's widely admired book of collected writings, published 18 months before. In it, the composer credited Rauschenberg's "White Paintings" for his own interest in quietude. A magpie, Warhol was nothing if not consistent.
Yet a tired 1978 assault by "Shadows" on long-gone 1950s Abstract Expressionism made little sense. Even disco was teetering on extinction by then. Four months after Warhol's self-described "disco décor" show closed, 50,000 rioting kids tore up a major league baseball field in Chicago on Disco Demolition Night. Disco disappeared from the music scene.
The "Shadows" was a dreary, monotonous epitaph for what had become establishment conventions — in both art and popular culture. The artist's decision to drink from the once-productive well that had launched him in 1962 was irreversibly stale.
For his then-fading career, it was also not without a whiff of desperation. The vacuous "Shadows," embalmed now at MOCA, has gained nothing from the passage of yet more time.
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'Andy Warhol: Shadows'
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Through Feb. 2. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.