Interview with Whitney Museum’s Donna De Salvo
SFMOMA’s “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” opened yesterday to a packed house. It is the first Warhol retrospective ever to travel to San Francisco. The show includes over 300 works from the artist’s sprawling 40-year career and is showcased across three floors of the museum.
During his lifetime, Warhol was a pop culture revolutionary who challenged the rise in commercialism during the 1950s-1980s. His works dissected celebrity, smashed icons, and opened doors for the masses to debunk the beauty myth of Madison Avenue and reinvent themselves through iteration, filtering and branding of their own images.
In so many ways, Warhol’s legacy endures. He was a private man who hid from the glare of the public eye through abstraction, obscurity, and ambiguity. He had a larger than life persona who defied stereotypes and promoted a “do not label me” ethos which has become a tenet of today’s culture.
At the time of his death in 1987, he was 58 years old and considered one of the most important artists in the world. Ever since then, the value of his works have skyrocketed as his influence over the modern era continues to spread.
His prediction that everyone in the future will have 15 minutes of fame not only came true, but also created a nightmare of epic proportions. Now all anyone wants is their 15 seconds of privacy. Zombified by their phones, camera always on, turns out Big Brother is us.
What would Andy say?
I had a chance to talk with Donna De Salvo, Senior Curator at the Whitney, about her mission to bring Warhol’s immense body of work to San Francisco. The show opened in New York City at The Whitney Museum and will be traveling next to the Art Institute of Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.
GLOBE: Is it true that Warhol is more than half of the art market?
DE SALVO: I’m not an expert on that arena, but it is interesting that the market is very strong with Warhol’s work and I think it’s because he’s such an iconic figure who has transcended the U.S. and has global recognition. I can’t really explain myself the valuation size of Warhol because there are Monets and other artists we think of as historically part of important moments, but there is no doubt that Warhol seems to have held his own, and in fact, the works have even escalated. I can’t comment on what the values are but if you look at the auction records, you certainly see this demand for more and more. Mostly in the area of the 1960s works. I do believe that the 1970s and 1980s works are really undervalued by comparison and think people are beginning to understand that work is really important. Most of what you’re talking about has been focused on the classic pop of the sixties and they’re very American. If you think about the U.S. and its own position in the world, although things have changed in the past several years, American art certainly has a huge impact on the world stage and on the market stage.
GLOBE: Is this the largest exhibition of Warhol in the United States?
DE SALVO: Yes, and probably one of the largest in the world organized by an American museum. The last one was in 1989 organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and it traveled to Chicago and then to Europe.
GLOBE: Are there unique works in this exhibition that we’re not likely to see again?
DE SALVO: Yes, I think that’s the case. It’s not easy to organize a Warhol exhibition. Many lenders are reluctant to part with works. Certainly the valuations bring logistical issues so I don’t think you’ll see another show of this scale for quite a number of years.
GLOBE: Neal Benezra, Director of SFMOMA, said that there are nearly 100 Warhol pieces in the Museum’s permanent collection. Which pieces should visitors focus on that they won’t see again for awhile?
DE SALVO: The Camouflage Last Supper is a pretty dramatic, major piece of Warhol, there are only two that exist at that scale, and the Rorschach paintings, plus, definitely some of the Disaster paintings. However some of the Disasterpaintings are in museum collections. For example, you can travel to Houston to see the Lavender Disaster painting of the electric chair. A lot of the work in the fifties you don’t get to see too often. The Gold Shoes are in a private collection. I don’t think you’ll see those for a long time so this is the opportunity to see it.
GLOBE: Warhol’s 14 Small Electric Chairs was tokenized by its owners last summer and nearly a third of it auctioned for $1.7 million at a valuation of $5.6 million. What would Andy have thought about selling fractionals of art on the blockchain?
DE SALVO: Haha, he probably would have loved that! I think he would have been fascinated by it frankly because he had such an interest in how things moved around.
GLOBE: Why was San Francisco picked as the second stop in the tour?
DE SALVO: We started talking quite some time ago and Gary Garrels (Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA) is a wonderful colleague and we have a mutual interest in Warhol. So early on when it was known that we were organizing the show, he reached out to me. It’s a great venue and SFMOMA itself has some wonderful Warhols which are in this show so there is a real commitment here, and presence of Warhol. Chicago is the other venue because it hosted the MoMA retrospective when it traveled from New York in 1989, and I also have colleagues who I’ve known for many years and have tremendous respect for them, so I know the show is in good hands.
GLOBE: My sense is that you picked San Francisco because this is the birthplace of social media, where the heart of the industry is. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are all headquartered here. It’s also where Andy was aligned philosophically and might have wanted the show.
DE SALVO: There’s no doubt that the number of industries here make this a very interesting place, on a scale that does not exist in New York, so I think it’s going to be interesting for people to see this work through that lens.
GLOBE: Was there any thought on reaching out to Facebook / Instagram not just as a donor but to also work together on integrating them into the exhibition?
DE SALVO: Everyone has been Instagramming like mad so you don’t even have to do anything.
GLOBE: What do you think about museums turning into Instagram photo shoots?
DE SALVO: I think it’s great, but I also think that despite things living on reproduction, people want to see the real stuff. It’s great to use social media to broadcast and comment on things that interest you, and make communities, but what’s really important is seeing the real thing. The experience of being in front of the object can never be the same as seeing a reproduction.
GLOBE: Many people will see the show through the lens of their devices, instead of with their eyes. There’s the addiction factor but it’s also how you access the audioguide.
DE SALVO: Well, I hope they use the phone to take the picture and then they look at the art, because otherwise they’re really missing it.