Warhol’s most powerful works are often the most jam-packed, which is to say that he managed to turn quantity into quality.

In 1967 the American Program Bureau asked Andy Warhol to consider a cross-country college lecture tour. By then the artist had become widely known for his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans and unedited films like Sleep, in which poet John Giorno snoozes for eight hours. Warhol craved attention, but he balked at the public exposure a tour would entail; although he hid his baldness beneath a flamboyant silver wig, he was painfully self-conscious about his pale, pockmarked complexion and florid nose, the result of a childhood bout of Saint Vitus’ dance. He’d cultivated a robotic persona to match his repetitive images of Coke bottles, movie stars, and dollar bills, and he suspected that his evasive style of speaking would disappoint inquisitive students; he typically answered questions with a “yes,” “no,” or “I’ve never thought about it.” Despite Warhol’s reticence, however, the bureau finally convinced him to go.

A week into the tour, a bored Warhol hired unemployed actor Allen Midgette to take his place. Midgette whitened his face with Max Factor’s Erase, spray-painted his hair silver, donned a pair of sunglasses, and gave a deadpan rendition of Warhol at several western universities. The ruse wasn’t discovered until an observant student compared his photo of Warhol to one printed in The Village Voice. When a reporter phoned to confront the artist (now back at his New York studio), Warhol insisted that a proxy was just as good as he would have been. Asked how the reporter could be sure the voice on the telephone belonged to the real Andy Warhol, the voice replied, “I don’t know.”

Whether hiring a look-alike strikes you as an absurdist gesture or an outright deception, it was completely in keeping with the assembly-line logic of Warhol’s art: If one Campbell’s soup can is as good as another, then one Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can is as good as another, and therefore one Warhol is as good as another. Discriminating taste didn’t excite him nearly as much as indiscriminate taste. He preferred TV commercials to TV shows, simultaneously blasted Top 40 hits on two hi-fis, and shopped compulsively. When asked if he ate Campbell’s soup, he exclaimed, “I love it!”

Was he mocking Madison Avenue or endorsing soup? Warhol’s genius was in his ability to hover between sincerity and irony. For those of us who idolized the cipher that was Andy Warhol, there was no “real” Andy. Real, in his case, necessitated quotation marks.

“If I could have anyone on retainer,” the artist once said, “it would be a boss, because a boss tells you what to do and that makes things really easy.” There’s a touching note of selflessness in the remark, but passivity gave Warhol the potent charisma by which he held sway over the friends and sycophants who crowded his studio. If he wasn’t a boss, he was a demanding anti-boss. He had no trouble enticing people—from junkies to museum curators—to “star” in his many 16mm movies by staring self-consciously into the camera. “You’re overacting,” he’d scold if they blinked too often. It wasn’t the person’s essence he captured so much as his or her acquiescence.

Although paintings like 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) and Marilyn Monroe Twenty Times (1962) reflect the seemingly limitless plenitude of postwar America, Warhol’s aesthetic was also one of aggressive negation. He chose images from tabloids and advertisements and transferred them onto canvas with a photo–silk screen, a process that had more in common with commercial printing than with fine art. Often others did the silk-screening while the artist read magazines or talked on the phone. If an assistant pointed out a smudge or an imperfection, Warhol invariably said, “I like it.” He tirelessly solicited ideas from friends for what he should paint, relieved when he didn’t have to think up a new one. As a final blow to authorship, he had his signature made into a rubber stamp. By absenting himself from his work and striving, as he famously put it, to be a machine, he systematically stripped his paintings of artistic touch, time-consuming craft, and elevated subject matter. In short, he replaced the traditional virtues of art with a brash artlessness.

Warhol enraged factions both inside and outside the art world. Conservative critics made him out to be the ringleader of “pinheaded and contemptible” pop artists. His fascination with mechanical reproduction and the rampant banalities of urban life posed a threat to the spontaneous, nonrepresentational work of a second generation of abstract expressionists. For skeptics who believed modern art was an elitist hoax, that someone would pay good money for a bunch of soup cans was proof of human folly. A segment of the ’60s counterculture found Warhol’s sensibility alienating; no artist could have been less earthy, natural, or intent on political and social revolution. Andy was about as natural as a silver wig. He wanted to merge with the culture, not counter it. Forty years after the advent of pop art, it may be difficult to look at something as benign as a painting of a soup can and imagine it turning the world inside out, but the more mundane Warhol’s art, the more radical and inflammatory an effect it had. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Andy Warhol retrospective (May 25-August 18) highlights the boilerplate wonders of Warhol by offering examples of his themes in bulk. There are 45 Brillo boxes (fabricated by Pasadena’s Norton Simon museum for Warhol’s first retrospective in 1969), 18 inscrutable self-portraits, and a hothouse worth of the gaudy flowers that he produced (a) ad infinitum or (b) ad nauseam. All 13 of the Most Wanted Men series from 1964 are gathered here from international collections, mug shots that radiate an almost glamorous infamy Also on display are the 32 soup cans (Campbell’s manufactured 32 flavors) Irving Blum exhibited at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery in 1962, Warhol’s first solo show. Blum realized that the sum of the series was greater than its parts and refused to sell the paintings individually; he kept them together to maintain the impression of a fully stocked supermarket, an association he emphasized by propping the paintings on a long shelf rather than hanging them on the wall.

Warhol’s most powerful works are often the most jam-packed, which is to say that he managed to turn quantity into quality. The exhibit proves that the greater the number of mourning Jackie Kennedys on a single canvas, and the more Jackie-filled canvases in a single room, the likelier that a viewer will be both overwhelmed and anesthetized by tragedy. Warhol’s Jackies remind us that grief is everywhere repeated and that we do, and sometimes must, become numb to it. Warhol intuitively grasped the paradox of media saturation, which bombards us with potent images until our response is eroded. There’s a thin line between glut and nothingness, and Warhol made it thinner.

This is especially true of his Disaster paintings, a doomsday parade of car crashes, suicides, electric chairs, race riots, and mushroom clouds. In the more gruesome canvases, abstract wreckage gives way to the fact of a mangled corpse, and the viewer wavers between fascination and withdrawal, pity and indifference. Several paintings in the series include vast blank spaces that, juxtaposed with so much carnage, are frighteningly void of sensation. A zealous wholesaler even when it came to existential matters, Warhol titled many of the pieces according to their color and quantity. Green Disaster Ten Times, Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times–as if visions of mortality came in a range of designer hues and could be sold by the dozen.

Two of the exhibit’s suicide paintings are especially affecting. Each shows a plummeting figure frozen in a news photograph, and therefore in time. The paintings bring to mind the frames of a film, though it is a film locked in a single, stuttering instant without hope of progress or resolution. In Woman Suicide (1963), and Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1963), each anonymous body is suspended forever between life and death, and its imminent impact seems to stain the canvas as indelibly as paint.

It’s no surprise that, given his fondness for products, Warhol first made his living as a commercial artist. He earned a reputation as a freelance fashion illustrator, one client calling him “the da Vinci of shoes.” Fashion illustrations are included at MOCA, along with examples of his work as a student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Also on view are sketches of celebrity feet from the 1950s, a precursor to his starry-eyed portraits of Marilyn and Elvis. Hints of his mature style can be seen in the repeated motifs of his student designs and in his use of an ink-transfer method that allowed him to quickly reproduce a single image. The surprise is how uncharacteristically whimsical this work is, eager to ingratiate itself with faux-naive flourishes and sheets of gold leaf.

Warhol himself was no naif; an admirer of contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, he kept watch on the New York art scene of the early ’60s and, determined to become a fine artist, took his position in it seriously It would be a stretch to claim that a particular painting from this period was overtly autobiographical, yet one of his earliest, Advertisement (1960), is rich with symbols of self-invention and assimilation: A 98-pound weakling is transformed into a bodybuilder; an average man sports a dapper new haircut; a before-and-after ad shows a woman’s hooked nose reshaped into a WASP profile. Especially in the context of a retrospective, the painting suggests that Andrew Warhola, the shy son of Czech immigrants, was ready to metamorphose into Andy Warhol, superartist, able to shatter convention while embracing it. What Advertisement reveals if reveals isn’t too strong a word for a man so opaque–is Warhol’s awareness that America is a promise as much as a place, an enticement to buy, blend in, and belong. He half facetiously claimed that democracy was great because both rich and poor could buy the same canned goods. Although the brand-name labels and household appliances in this early work have a hasty, half-finished look, they are iconic and mesmerizing, as charged with subliminal longing as any successful ad.

AMONG THE SHOW’S MANY HIGHLIGHTS is a series of large canvases based on paint-by-number landscapes. Having grown up as an outsider in terms of his nationality, class, sexuality, and appearance, Warhol must have been genuinely delighted by the anyone-can-be-an-artist nature of the subject, which embodies his broad concept of democracy, his quick `n’ easy brand of ambition. These paintings may take aim at the pieties of high art, but they also reflect an avant-gardist’s perverse pleasure in artistic conformity.

Nearly all of the images readily associated with the artist were produced in the astonishingly productive years between 1960 and 1968. So were a few anomalous projects, such as Silver Clouds (1966), dozens of Mylar pillows filled with helium and drifting through the gallery in midair, objects as illusive as Warhol himself, their surfaces mirroring the world around them. There was also Cow Wallpaper (1966), with which he papered New York’s Castelli Gallery; the large fuchsia heads of a jersey set against an acid yellow background. Wallpaper was the logical, if absurd, end product of his interest in repetition.

By the 1970s Warhol’s well-publicized oeuvre had become part of the popular culture he once mined for subject matter. The bright, high-contrast portraits of Liza and Mick were no longer about the brittle mask of celebrity, they were a way to flatter his sitters, making him an obsequious court painter. His commissions for Mercedes-Benz and Perrier are undistinguished glitz. Even sympathetic critics like Peter Schjeldahl lamented his “passionate avarice.” More pandering than ambiguous, Warhol no longer based his paintings on advertisements, they were advertisements, and some critical line was crossed. To think that his blunt work depended all along on nuance! The final irony may be that despite his shrug of aesthetic judgment, Warhol’s work from the 1960s remains decisive in the history of art.