Andy Warhol would be 92 this summer, had he not died of post-operative complications in 1987. His soup cans are almost 60, their whites now fading to grey. Few enough people dine daily on Campbell’s soup, as he did, for these paintings to sustain their significance as demotic homages any more. The common soup for the common man is recognisable these days mainly as blue chip Warhol.
Tate Modern, in considering how to present the artist for a new generation, has eliminated almost everything that lacks the split-second familiarity that mattered so much to Warhol. His output as a portraitist, for instance, is generously edited. Instead of the dubious sitters – from German industrialists to the Shah of Iran – whose faces he (or his assistants) depicted by production-line rote, we are given only the immortals – Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie – or those still-living stars whose fame survives in our time. Debbie Harry in violet and turquoise, lime and sulphur colour-ways; Mick Jagger in 1975, with the wrong-shaped head and hairdo, in tarry dun and Elastoplast pink, his youthful beauty squandered. There are, after all, good and bad Warhols.
There are also better and worse surveys, and this is decidedly the latter. Its drive is largely biographical, with a particular emphasis on sex. The curators want to quash the old myth of Andy as celibate voyeur, embarrassed by his pocked skin and sparse hair, and tell instead the evolutionary narrative of what’s prissily described as his “queer identity”. There are many images of the men Warhol fancied, and with whom he had affairs. The very first gallery has a side room in which his 1964 film Sleep is showing. The poet John Giorno, Warhol’s lover, is seen naked and sleeping in all his dark beauty, body foreshortened like that of some dead Renaissance Christ.
This opening room sets the worshipful tone with relics: family albums; childhood photographs; the passenger manifest recording his beloved mother Julia’s arrival from Slovakia at Ellis Island in 1921. You see her again, later, talking in the East Slavic language Rusyn to her son in one of several videos taped in the Manhattan building they shared for years. Warhol did not attend her funeral, however; he was supposed to have become especially death-averse after being shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanas.
Confronted in this show by Richard Avedon’s vast black-and-white photograph of Warhol’s torso – stitched up, the artist said, like a Chanel dress – that argument feels more simplistic than ever. Warhol poses like a model, parting his leather jacket and pulling down his underwear to bare his body. The swank is as much due to Warhol as Avedon.
Death steals through this show, from the eerie shadows of his Electric Chair sequence, where the restraints lie slack on the ground after the corpse has been removed, to the shocking image of a suicide falling from a building, over and again, in Warhol’s trademark repetitions. Here is Pink Race Riot, where you have to peer into the array of news shots of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 to notice the trained dog in the maelstrom. One after the other, the images have become so degraded they are scarcely legible; the dog has more prominence than the victims.
“Everything I do is connected with death,” he said, and it is central to Warhol’s method, the silkscreen prints taking the original photograph to the verge of dissolution with their blurry overlays and fadings, as the ink runs out. This is especially true of widowed Jackie, silver Elvis, the horrifying car crashes and Marilyn, dwindling from colour to ashen grey. Warhol began making these paintings immediately after her death; they have the status of exequies.
But the power of these classics is appallingly undermined at Tate Modern. The curators have selected one painting from each series – as if they were mere tokens – and jammed them indiscriminately together in a single room like miscellaneous merchandise at the Affordable Art Fair. You cannot stand at any distance from them, noticing their qualities and distinctions, absorbing their unique combination of graphic magnificence and froideur, their weird force of personality. And the Brillo boxes are heaped like coal in a corner, behind a cordon, so you can’t walk round them appreciating their double life as both paintings and sculptures.
There is a sense of hurrying through the masterworks to get back to the story. And, sure enough, far more attention is given to mocking up the Factory in the next room. Here the silver walls reflect Steve Shore’s famous shots of Andy and Lou and emaciated Edie et al, hanging out among the original silver walls.
The Screen Tests – where everyone is forced to sit still, or not, before Warhol’s camera – are an evergreen fascination. Dylan licks his lips, Debbie breaks into a smile, William Burroughs drags on a surprisingly senatorial cigar. Each portrait starts out as a still but quickens into suspenseful drama.
But then it’s back to old copies of Interview magazine, clips from home movies, photographs of Warhol on the Manhattan party scene, on television, as gossip column editor. Three of his wigs, white with creepy black under-hair, are laid out like dead creatures in a case. At times it feels as if the biography is taking over, the art an epiphenomenon to the overwhelming fame.
There are exceptions, specifically the gallery devoted to the 1975 series Ladies and Gentlemen. These portraits of drag performers from New York nightclubs are life-size, rapturous in their exuberant whorls and shifts of colour. One sitter, only known as Lurdes, is portrayed with such ecstatic sweeps that the features seem to melt; as if both subject and artist were getting out of their heads.
A wall text frets over the correct terminology – not knowing how Lurdes might have self-identified. But about Warhol himself there hardly seems much doubt. Blake Gopnik’s newly published biography– necessarily monumental, given the prodigious scale of Warhol’s social and professional life – makes his proclivities plain – plain as the art itself, with its lavish love of male beauty.
The curators appear slightly wistful that they cannot make a queer activist of Warhol. In the final gallery, 60 black-and-white prints of Leonardo’s The Last Supper are presented in sombre but glamorous lighting – a memorial wall, or so runs the wishful caption, invoking those who have died of Aids-related illnesses. But the work was commissioned by a Milan gallery in response to the restoration of The Last Supper; a print of it hung in Julia’s kitchen; and Warhol rarely missed mass. You can cut the deck another way.
Sixty Last Suppers is ultimately as affectless as Warhol so often wants to be. That it gets an entire gallery to itself exposes the flaws of this slight and ill-selected show. Stint on the art, in all its variations, in favour of identity politics and you get exactly the kind of zeitgeist pieties that would surely have bored Warhol himself.
• Andy Warhol is at Tate Modern, London, until 6 September