Page from comment book from 1989 Warhol retrospective

“I’ll Never Look at Soup the Same Way”

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Emily Lew Black Fry
November 22, 2019

Only 30 years ago, George H. W. Bush became president; The Simpsons premiered; the US invaded Panama; the Berlin Wall came down; and protests broke out in Tiananmen Square.

It also marks the last time a retrospective of Andy Warhol’s work was shown in the United States. In fact, the Art Institute was the last place that presented such a wide range of his art. Though it was 1989, many Chicagoans who come to see this year’s Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again might still remember experiencing this previous exhibition.

The waythe narthex of Regenstein Hall looked for the 1989 Warhol exhibition.Warhol 1989

“Warhol’s work is like a wide body jet,” someone wrote. “Much larger than you would ever think.”


The narthex of Regenstein Hall as it looked in 1989.

As we prepared to present Warhol to a new generation of visitors, we were curious about what audiences had thought about this innovative and provocative artist 30 years ago. A tip from Art Institute staff led us to the museum’s archives, which maintains and indexes the museum’s vast correspondence and exhibition-related ephemera. We searched for anything that would give insight into the minds of visitors to the 1989 exhibition and found a yellow visitor comment book, a quaint analog way of gathering feedback, reactions, and notes from visitors. Each page telegraphs what resonated about their unique experiences.

Cover of yellow nte

This notebook only covered five days during the exhibition, July 12–17, 1989. And it was full of comments.


Finding the comment book was like locating a mini–time capsule from 1989. The comments and fragments left behind by visitors were wide-ranging, providing glimpses into the particular moment and Warhol’s place in it.

Visitors came from all over the United States to see the show:

Page from comment book from 1989 Warhol retrospective

“I DROVE from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to see the exhibit, it is the single most impressive collection it has been my privilege to witness.”


“Awesome” —JTS


They left with new relationships (or comfortable confusion) with Warhol and his work:

A visitor's written remark from a comment book at the 1989 Warhol exhibition

“Good exposure of an obviously complex individual and his creativity. I enjoyed the exhibit; though could not always follow Warhol’s motivation for certain works.” —Janie P. Fink



Photo of galleries from the 1989 Warhol retrospective showing a variety of Soup Cans paintings

Someone named David Letterman, or assuming that name, wrote: “I’ll never look at soup the same way.”


Page from comment book from 1989 Warhol retrospective

“Warhol reminds me that Art’s purpose is to make a comment on anything the artist feels important. Surely every day kinds of things are as important as that which ‘conventional art’ seems obsessed with.”


Gallery photo showing Warhol's early works

“I didn’t realize what a terrific sense of humor he had,” wrote Linda.


Some made connections to their own lives and the present moment:

Page from comment book from 1989 Warhol retrospective

“Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, ANDY WARHOL was part of my world. The times were wonderfully alive, and new. The pace was upbeat with riotous troubles, and assassinations along the way … in spite of all this we Americans were advancing in the “SPACE PROGRAM” yet caught in an unpopular war. However the music of the times; the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, all held promise for tomorrow. We were all part of that world … and Andy Warhol simply served it back to us!!!” —Respectfully Bill Ghand (artist to be!)


Some left with new perspectives and left with more questions:

Page from 1989 comment book the last major Warhol retrospective at the Art Institute

“The show changed my perception and understanding of Warhol—it was enhanced by the audio guide. Thanks.”


“I wonder if he was truly sane or is it me?”


Photo from 1989 Warhol exhibition showing portraits of Jackie O

“I gained a new respect for this man whom I had regarded as a joke.”


And others just seemed to have fun:

Photo from 1989 Warhol retrospective showing Cow Wallpaper And mylar balloons

“It was cool. I like balloons. I liked the cow wallpaper.”


For some, the visit became a living memorial as Warhol had died only two years before this exhibition opened:

Excerpt from comment book

“It seems a fairly safe portrayal for such a controversial life so recently passed.” —Doug Caldemrood


“It lasted more than 15 minutes.” —Ken Cathbertson


Gallery of Celebrity Portraits from 1989

“Andy’s probably laughing at us all!” —CW and EG


Finding this comment book reveals how Warhol’s work not only spans decades and embraces contemporary media but crosses and even binds generations. Come check out Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again and see what effect it has on you.

And if by any chance you left a comment in 1989, please let us know!

—Emily Lew Black Fry, director of interpretation in the Department of Learning and Public Engagement

Topics

  • Exhibitions
  • Museum History
  • People

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