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Andy Warhol's monumental artwork Shadows on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao
Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1978–79. Dia Art Foundation. View of the installation: Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / VEGAP. Photo: Bill Jacobson.
BILBAO.- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Shadows (1978–79) by Andy Warhol, a monumental artwork of 102 large format, silkscreened panels that reflect some of Warhol’s explorations with abstraction through his signature palette of bright and cheerful hues, which characterized a large part of his work. Curator Lucia Agirre is working on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao's presentation of Andy Warhol: Shadows , which is organized by Dia Art Foundation.

At 50 years old, Andy Warhol, the irreverent Pop Art icon, and chronicler of an era, embarked upon the production of a monumental artwork titled Shadows with the assistance of his entourage at the Factory. The work formalized earlier explorations with abstraction, seen the previous year in the Oxidation , Rorschach , and Camouflage paintings. In contrast to the Oxidation or Piss paintings, achieved through a process of staining in which a canvas coated in copper reacted to the acidity of urine spilled or dripped on it, the Shadows panels are silkscreened canvases. To understand the radical implications of Warhol’s Shadows , one must begin with the work’s form: the Shadows series was conceived as one painting in multiple parts, the final number of canvases determined by the dimensions of an exhibition space. In its first public presentation, only 83 canvases were shown. They were installed edge to edge, a foot from the floor, in the order that Warhol’s assistants, Ronnie Cutrone and Stephen Mueller, hung them.

The canvases, which were primed and coated with acrylic paint prior to the printing of the image, show Warhol’s signature palette of bright hues with cheerful excess. While the color palette used for the grounds of the Shadows includes more than a dozen different hues, certain colors that are characteristic of his larger body of work—the translucent violet of Lavender D isaster , 1963, or the aqua green of Turquoise Marilyn , 1964—are present. Unlike the surfaces of earlier paintings, in which thin layers of rolled acrylic paint constituted the backgrounds onto which black pixelated images were silkscreened, the backgrounds of the Shadows canvases were painted with a sponge mop, whose streaks and trails add “gesture” to the picture plane. Seven or eight different screens were used to create Shadows , as evidenced in the slight shifts in scales of dark areas as well as the arbitrary presence of spots of light.

The “shadows” alternate between positive and negative as they march along the walls of the gallery. Despite the apparent embrace of repetition, Warhol’s “machine method” is nothing but handmade. A significant and intriguing fact about Shadows is the irreproducibility of its assumed reproduction, a point that problematizes his aesthetic of “plagiarism” and positions Warhol’s project as one that is primordially pictorial. This revelation, previously inferred by curator Donna De Salvo in the catalogue for Tate’s 2001 retrospective of Warhol’s work, is crucial to our absorbing this monumental series 39 years after it was created. As De Salvo observed, “each of the visual strategies operative in these paintings is the same as those used some 17 years before. As with the earlier silkscreen paintings, although we at first believe each canvas to be the same—a belief emphasized here by the repeated patterns of the shadow—they are not.” Far from replicas, each Shadow corresponds to a form that reveals its space with precision and self-awareness, directing the spectator’s gaze to light, the central subject of the series. By focusing on the shadow to devise light as sparks of color, Warhol returns to the quintessential problem of art: perception. As he asserted, “when I look at things, I always see the space they occupy. I always want the space to reappear, to make a comeback, because it’s lost space when there’s something in it.”

Andy Warhol was known for admitting his “fondness for dull things,” which by the early 1960s corresponded to his use of photographic reproductions of found imagery culled from newspapers, magazines, and image archives. Focusing his attention on “ready-made” icons of popular culture, Warhol compiled over the course of his career a pictorial repertoire that included consumer products, portraits of celebrities, socialites, and criminals, and snapshots of car accidents, electric chairs, and race riots, which were transferred onto canvas using commercial silkscreen techniques. It has frequently been claimed that Warhol’s contradictory statements and fluctuating declarations of intention, which permeated his career, were mere “acts” within a carefully tailored self-parody.

Perhaps to Warhol’s own astonishment, his deployment of superfluous and ordinary subjects would become a powerful model of political subversion for a generation defined as much as by Hollywood and popular music as by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. In hindsight, Warhol’s prolific oeuvre, which materialized in a wide range of media including drawings, prints, silkscreened canvases, Polaroid photographs, and black-and-white prints, as well as Super 8 and 16mm films, remains to this day unrivaled for its copiousness. Contrary to his professed emptiness—he once said, “if you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it”—Warhol’s working process and the “assembly line” of his Factory heralded with unprecedented irreverence and irony quite deliberate social and political transgressions.

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