We Thought We’d Seen Them All

Just when an aficionado like yours truly thought there couldn’t possibly be another aspect of Andy Warhol’s oeuvre to consider, along comes this. I’ll be the first to admit that his later work had nowhere near the appeal and freshness of his early stuff. Indeed, by the time of his death, most of his output consisted of commissioned portraits that were derivative and a little hackneyed. These car paintings, though also commissions and done in the same style as his “Interview-Era” portraits, seem to me to be a little harder to pin down.

For one thing, they are hardly a celebration of the banality of celebrity. Ordered by Daimler-Benz for their 100th anniversary, they seem to be more a true outpouring of exuberance and fun than is normally evident in Warhol’s work. All the expected tropes are still there: the now commonplace multiple imagery, the bright, neon color palette, the affected, hand-drawn outline. Yet there is something more, something stronger about these works. Perhaps it is the sheer graphic boldness of the Mercedes’ lines and form translated into Warhol’s style. The repetition of the sleek automobiles reinforces an abstract quality that often goes over-looked in his work. Then again, it might just be the refreshing return to non-human subjects. The controversial electric chair and car crash paintings always seemed so striking to me because of the lack of figures and these works have that same sparse punch.

The wonder may also stem from the fact that these are works that have not been widely shown. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. But I still think that “Cars” feels more true than the society portraits. There is a sense that Andy was having a bit of a lark with the project, freed from the parameters of the Downtown Scene and the obsession with fame. These are simple, bold paintings, with an interesting balance of commodity and composition. Less an ad campaign than birthday decorations, they look to me like a brief, deft flash of confidence from an artist who, by that point, had precious little of it to spare.

Take a look for yourself but hurry up; they’re only on view for another month or so.

Andy Warhol, “Cars”, through May 16th at the Albertina Museum, Vienna

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