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See Andy Warhol's screen prints, buy the mass-produced merchandise

ST. PETERSBURG — Andy Warhol was the ultimate creative marketer, completely comfortable in the intersection where art meets commerce. He was popular culture and pop art personified, the guy who said, "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."

You'll see how brilliant the meld has become, even 22 years after his death, at the Museum of Fine Arts, where an exhibition of his famous screen prints opens Saturday. And how that fine art translates seamlessly into mass-produced merchandise that fills the shelves of the museum's store, with some examples previewed here.

Unlike many artists who might cringe at such commercialization of their art, Warhol would undoubtedly have loved it. He began — and gained fame and modest fortune in the 1950s — as a commercial illustrator of fashion accessories, most notably shoes. But he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, jealous of the attention contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Jasper Johns were getting in the early 1960s.

He worked to find his niche: household staples (Campbell's soup cans, Coke bottles) given a flat, objective treatment. He replicated money after someone suggested he paint what he loved. He began appropriating the image of Marilyn Monroe right after her death, replicating a publicity photo with dozens of interpretations. People took notice. He was ridiculed at first, even reviled by critics, but he had the last laugh. He became the king of pop art as well as a very rich man. And he never cried on the way to the bank.

So, yes, he would have loved the notebooks, toys, magnets, watches . . . all the stuff, being a fan and obsessive collector of stuff himself. If he had lived, can't you see him selling melamine Marilyn plates on HSN, then making an art movie about it?

"Gee," he would have said to some gushing caller. And, repeating his famous catchall phrase as often as he repeated images in screen prints:

"Uh, great."

Lots of Andy

Warhol's uncomplicated graphic treatments of faces, flowers and common things are ideal for mass reproduction and, more than most such crossovers, provide a real sense of the range of his art. The Museum Store at the Museum of Fine Arts has a large assortment of souvenirs and gift items decorated with some of the artist's most famous images, including his own be-wigged head. Lest you feel a little cynical about all this, know that the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which sells the licenses for Warhol products, is a not-for-profit organization set up after the artist's death in accordance with his will, and gives millions of dollars in arts grants from its profits every year. Art and commerce. Gee. Uh, great. Indeed.

Preview | Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life and Legends

Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg
(727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org

The pop artist's favorite medium was the screen print, and 71 of them will be showcased at the Museum of Fine Arts beginning Saturday and continuing through Aug. 16.

Warhol loved printmaking. It could be done in multiples yet varied in color and details with each individual print. And it was collaborative, so he could hand off a lot of the production to others, a habit he acquired in his days as a commercial illustrator. It was no coincidence that his studio was called the Factory.

The show includes examples of his well-known work and some that are less familiar. You'll also see a few works by other artists who were close to Warhol: Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph of him about a year before he died and a Keith Haring print titled Andy Mouse that Warhol loved so much he signed it.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293. Her blog, Critics Circle, is at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

See Andy Warhol's screen prints, buy the mass-produced merchandise 05/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 4:43pm]
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