ST. PETERSBURG — We think we have Andy Warhol pegged. The pop artist seems embedded in our consciousness as the embodiment of the go-go 1960s when art cartwheeled from brooding navel-gazing to unabashed surface hedonism. Many called the new pop art movement superficial, a word he was comfortable with.
Warhol’s ubiquitous images of soup cans, along with the celebrity-driven persona he cultivated, made him a legend. But the easy assumptions that his most famous images provide about his art hamper a complete understanding of his artistic sensibilities and his contributions to art. His droll detachment masked a serious work ethic and aesthetic that yielded a prodigious output of works in media not much associated at the time with high art: films, a magazine, television and, as we see at a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, screen prints.
Screen printing probably originated in China in the first century. It’s a stenciling process in which parts of a screen are blocked while paint is forced through a fine mesh onto paper or fabric to create a pattern. It was called silk screening for centuries because silk mesh was used. When it was introduced in Europe in the late 18th century, screen printing was used industrially to mass-produce things like wallpaper.
With the rise of photography in the 19th century, a new type of screen was developed on which a photographed image was made onto a screen. The chemical emulsions became the “blocking” agents instead of paper stencils. Artists picked up on the technique and gave it a fancy name, serigraphy, but it was still considered a commercial vehicle to make fast multiples of an image, not nearly as prestigious a technique as engraving.
Warhol changed that with the help of Marilyn Monroe, who conveniently died in August 1962, just as he was experimenting with screen prints. He had had his first one-man show in California of his notorious soup can paintings (which were not prints). He had already decided that the innovative repetition of multiple images in a grid pattern (Coke bottles, for example) could be better served by printing than painting since he wanted to achieve a uniformity and conformity in his everyday images that referenced mass culture rather than individual creative effort.
His decision to deploy Monroe’s face, smiling from a publicity photo, was partly sympathetic; he had probably met her and was a big fan. But he also cannily realized that since her face was as well-known as the inanimate objects he focused on, he could ride the media tsunami her death was generating.
Warhol had the image transferred to a screen, cropped it and printed it again and again, first only in black and white. Then he painted canvases with bright backgrounds and colorful areas corresponding to the places her hair and face would appear on the canvas, printing her photograph on top of the color. He purposefully exaggerated the painted area, extending her lip and eye contours. She was familiar and different. Realistic and glamorous. Neither sappy nor ironic. She was uber-Marilyn, her natural beauty melded with the fame’s artifice.
He followed up with screen prints of other celebrities, along with reproductions of tabloid photos documenting car crashes and lurid deaths, all nods to the public fascination with the sensational.
Collectors began standing in line.
Most of the prints in this show are from later dates than these earliest ones. The Flowers suite covering a gallery wall is a 1970s version of the first Flowers created in 1964. Now we’re accustomed to their Day-Glo colors and simple treatment. Imagine the fresh appeal they must have had 45 years ago when they were a truly new thing.
Warhol found a photograph of hibiscus, cropped and manipulated it slightly and had a photographic screen made. The color layers are slightly “off-register,” meaning the individual screens used for each color don’t line up perfectly, causing a slight blurring. This, along with other imperfections in the process, were at first mistakes by the artist and his helpers.
But Warhol liked that randomness and spontaneity, encouraging it just as he did the myriad acquaintances who came to his studio to help him make his prints and paintings (for free, by the way; he was notoriously stingy). Unlike many artists who discreetly employ assistants, he promoted their involvement as an important component.
“I tried doing them by hand,” he said, “but I find it easier to use a screen. This way I don’t have to work on my object at all. One of my assistants or anyone else for that matter can reproduce the design as well as I could.”
That comment isn’t as startling as it sounds. Printmaking is almost always collaborative, requiring the skills of printers or, at the very least, extra sets of hands. An artist, if he trusts the printer, will often let the latter make decisions and choices during the process based on their mutual understanding. Sometimes the artist isn’t even in the studio when the prints are made. But, of course, Warhol was the one who validated that division of labor, making it sound shocking (since screen printing wasn’t common, neither was an understanding of it) and avant-garde.
For all his insouciance, Warhol had firm control of the Flowers outcome. They appear to float over a leafy background, compressed into pure color with no distinguishing details. One critic at the time likened them to a hybrid of Matisse’s cutouts floating on Monet’s waterlily pond.
A group of lush grapes dominates another wall, printed with dramatic blocks of color, some even given dimension with a layer of sparkly “diamond dust.” Also from 1979 is the “Space Fruit” series: apples, pears, cantaloupes, peaches and a watermelon that glow with a strange light. Warhol usually liked his prints without context, but these are among the few that cast actual shadows, as if they exist in a real dimension.
Beginning in 1980, Warhol made a conscious effort to produce prints that would have guaranteed commercial appeal. Ten animals depicted in the “Endangered Species” portfolio and another 10 archetypal faces from popular culture (including himself) are examples. They’re certainly wonderfully Warholian, with lots of inventive color and line and just a little kitsch. But they lack the honest exuberance, the sense of discovery and invention found in earlier prints.
The “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” seems a misfire. Instead of exploiting the enormous variety of his choices with his trademark irony (the Marx Brothers in the company of Martin Buber?), he makes a solemn muddle.
Warhol was in good company in this new art movement, and arguments can be made that he isn’t the best among his peers, who include Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg.
The difference between Warhol and his contemporaries is that he unapologetically embraced the commercial component referenced by most pop art at face value rather than using the appropriated images as symbols and metaphors. His art is not, and was never meant to be, profound. He reproduced dollar bills because he liked money, Campbell’s soup because he ate it a lot, Brillo boxes because his mother used the scrubbies and celebrity portraits because they paid well.
The exhibition also includes four large prints by Keith Haring. Haring was part of a younger pop generation who revered Warhol’s commercial success. Haring, a friend, created “portraits” of Warhol as Andy Mouse in 1986, and they gleefully celebrate the artist’s financial and popular success.
By the time he died unexpectedly in 1987 after gall bladder surgery, Warhol had himself become a commodity, even more successful than Salvador Dali at marketing himself. He took a lot of critical hits. He appeared headed for self-parody. Maybe his death was good for his career. He would probably have approved of anything that created both conversation and cash.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293. She contributes to the Critics Circle blog at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.