"A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good," observed Andy Warhol in 1975. "What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest."
That quote suggests at least some of the reasons why Warhol, who died in 1987, has remained the most influential visual artist of postwar America. More than most, he understood the leveling promise of the place. Born to immigrant, impoverished parents outside of Pittsburgh in 1928, he was a sickly gay kid who fell in love with the ways mass production made things affordable and mass entertainment created an endless succession of identities and images people could try on, tweak, and discard.
"An artist ought to be able to change his style without feeling bad" is another Warhol aphorism, this one on brilliant display at New York's Whitney Museum through March 31. "Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again" is the first retrospective in the United States of the artist's work since his death. It captures all the phases of his career, from shoe-catalog illustrator to silk-screen portraitist to avant-garde film and video maker.
The ultimate revelations are about Warhol's work ethic—he never stopped working, even when whiling away the nights at Studio 54—and his ongoing search for new ways to explore and express himself and his ever-changing relationship to the world around him.