In the spring of 1982, in the thick of the return to non-Conceptual painting and three-and-a-half years after Giorgio de Chirico had died, William Rubin organized a major exhibition of his paintings and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The nucleus of the project was the bequest of Metaphysical paintings given to the museum by James Thrall Soby. Rubin followed Soby and Alfred Barr, his predecessor at MoMA, by focusing upon de Chirico’s work of 1911 – 17, rigorously inserting it within the modernist tradition. Somewhat begrudgingly, he also included an assortment of nearly twenty paintings from the 1920s, as if to acknowledge the sensibilities of the present—the attraction de Chirico’s later work exerted upon postmodern critics and younger painters, from Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente to Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel.
During or directly after the show, Andy Warhol was commissioned to produce a series of paintings “after” de Chirico. He had met de Chirico a decade earlier in New York. Warhol saw the exhibition at MoMA, but was especially struck by a two-page spread in Rubin’s catalogue, which reproduced eighteen versions of The Disquieting Muses, all executed between 1945 and 1960 (the original, painted in 1918, is on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art). In an interview with Achille Bonito Oliva, he remarked, “Aren’t they great?” and wondered, “How did he repeat the same images? Did he project the same image on canvas? Maybe he did it by dividing the canvas in sections…he could have used a silkscreen!” Ever the fan, the “scandal” of de Chirico’s repetitions sparked Warhol’s enthusiasm, kindled his curiosity, and ignited his competitive drive. More than this, the two-page spread was like a template of the seriality and modularity of his own painting.
Before the year was out, Warhol had produced twenty-three serial paintings and eleven single-sheet drawings based on six Metaphysical paintings by de Chirico—all notably derived from later versions, de Chiricos that were already “after” de Chirico: An Italian Square with Ariadne (1950), Hector and Andromache (1950), The Poet and His Muse (1959), The Disquieting Muses (1960), Furniture in the Valley (1962), and Orestes and Pylades (1962).
When de Chirico painted a new version of The Disquieting Muses for the first time in 1924, he had promised the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard that the new canvas would be an “exact replica” of the original, but “created in a more beautiful medium with a more knowledgeable technique.” Sixty-one years later, in May 1985, when Benjamin Buchloh interviewed Warhol, it was precisely this sort of revival of technique, expressivity, and reference in contemporary painting that vexed the critic. He contended, however, that Warhol’s After de Chirico paintings had been misunderstood as celebrating the rediscovery of late de Chirico, when, in fact, they distanced themselves from the work.
The June 21 at talk at the Center for Italian Modern Art, “On Warhol’s “After de Chirico,” will delve into Warhol’s intense identification with the theatricality of de Chirico’s persona and subversive status within the avant-garde; it will study the after-effect of de Chirico’s late work upon Warhol’s own late painting, and consider the question of critical distance that Buchloh proposed to Warhol in 1985.