On Saturday Nov. 17, New York City’s Whitney Museum Of American Art opened its doors to dozens of people gathered on the museum’s steps, waiting patiently in the cold wind to view the Andy Warhol exhibition that opened a few days earlier on Nov. 12. As they started to make their way into the glass building, it didn’t take long for a second line to start forming inside – this time in front of the museum gift shop.
The first major Warhol exhibition of this scale in the U.S. since 1989, “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” was recommended on multiple “things to do in New York” lists. So not surprisingly, a large crowd of locals and tourists didn’t want to miss its first weekend. By noon on Saturday, the building was so crowded with visitors it was difficult to walk around the gallery floors. The gift shop was no different.
“It’s so packed, we were actually hesitant about coming in,” said Melissa Spagnolo, 45, who was browsing in the store with a friend. They came in from New Jersey to see the show but they were not interested in buying anything from the Whitney gift shop.
There was certainly much to tempt them, though. The store offered more than 50 items inspired by classic Warhol creations, including pins with famous Warhol quotes and banana stickers patterned after Warhol’s cover image for The Velvet Underground. There were also Campbell Soup Can candles, a Warhol DIY Time Capsule Kit, and Warhol-themed skate decks (wheels not included). Items started at $2 and went as high as $1,700, said Adrian Hardwicke, director of visitor experience at the Whitney.
“We’ve already hit record sales for the shop through this exhibit,” he said on Saturday. “Our aim is to make sure there’s something here at every price point.”
The collection, which took 18 months to gather, included a mix of pieces unique to the Whitney as well as items by local artists who had previously been licensed by The Andy Warhol Foundation.
“It was cool to see everything here at once,” said Bryant Mojica, who had also seen some of Warhol’s work before. He tried to make his way through the crowded gift-shop along with his friends Dan Bish and Ryan Weldon, admiring the various collectibles and wondering if they should buy Warhol’s banana stickers, priced $80 for a set of seven. “Everything here is really expensive,” said Weldon.
Several visitors admired unique pieces, such as the Warhol-inspired banana socks ($14), or a Marilyn Monroe porcelain plate ($150), only to shake their heads once they saw the price. Several children tried – some successfully, some not – to convince their parents to buy them Warhol toys. The range of items included Andy Warhol Dominoes ($29.99), a Soup Can Memory Game ($19.99) and Warhol Barbie dolls ($75-110).
“I’ll probably just get some Warhol pins,” said Ann Bonte, a 73-year-old visitor from Buffalo, NY who was also eyeing the Warhol postcards on display.
Bonte, a fan of Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings, said she had never seen his “Camouflage Last Supper” before this exhibition. The painting, one of Warhol’s last before he died in 1987, combines an enlarged print of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” with a military camouflage pattern. In an audio guide on the museum’s website, Warhol exhibition curator Donna De Salvo said that at the time of Warhol’s creation, da Vinci’s “Last Supper” had been restored several times. Warhol preferred its deteriorating state, she said, and the piece was his way of responding to the way it existed in the present, not just as an art historical masterpiece, but as something that circulated in the media. With a range of tote bags and t-shirts that featured a selfie-like close up of Warhol’s face, the museum’s gift shop seemed to use a similar media-focused tactic with its merchandise.
Warhol’s use of everyday objects and well-known faces in his art gave it a broad appeal that, not surprisingly, translates into marketable merchandise. “Warhol used imagery that people outside the art world can relate to,” said Amna Asghar, a 34-year-old artist based in the Bronx and Detroit. Asghar, who was interviewed by the Whitney for a promotional video prior to the opening of the exhibition, has studied Warhol’s work throughout her career.
“Warhol would take familiar celebrity faces and other things that can feel so mundane and bring them to a canvas and a gallery,” she said in a phone interview. “This democratized art in a way that could be accessible to the public.”
Explaining that Warhol married high culture and low culture, Asghar described how so much of his work relates to the way that we live now. Warhol branded himself as famous, but accessible, she said. In the age of social media, where anyone can become famous with a multiplication of “likes,” Asghar said his work is more relevant now than ever before.
Visitors at the gift shop seemed to agree. “Warhol was an astute observer of people and trends,” said Garrett Phelan who was visiting from Connecticut with his wife Jane. “It’s amazing how he experimented with different media to portray things that were so banal.”
The Phelans also wondered what Warhol would have done had he been working today. After seeing some of Warhol’s short films that were screening on the Whitney’s third floor, Garrett Phelan thought that Warhol might be using social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook to push his brand into the public eye if he were still alive.
He’d likely be using the Whitney’s gift-shop as well to push his brand – and reap the benefits.
Around 12:30 pm, a young boy ran up to his father, who was waiting in line at the register with some books. He was dragging a plush, oversize Campbell’s Soup Can.
“Look, it’s a seat,” he said smiling broadly.
His father asked him how much it cost ($100) and what he would do with it.
“Sit on it!” the boy said.
And his father bought it.
“Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again” will run at the Whitney Museum through March 31, 2019.