Anyone who has never heard of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) has been living seriously off the grid for more than 50 years. He's probably the most documented artist of the 20th century, a promotional genius who defined the modern model of celebrity artist. Not for him 15 minutes of fame.
And that last reference to his clever, highly quotable philosophy about life and art — his most famous quote, by the way — encapsulates Warhol's appeal. He was able to get to the heart of the matter in a simple way. Yes, he could be considered cynical and manipulative. But I think much of what he said and did was based on a genuine and almost childlike world view. As he once said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
He became famous with paintings of soup cans and oversize boxes of Brillo Pads, but prints were really the best vehicles for Warhol's aesthetic.
Thirty-five of them on view at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art bear witness to his less-is-all-there-is approach to art. He used the screen print, essentially a stencil method that was considered a mostly commercial method until he elevated its status, to pay homage to people and characters he felt best represented popular culture.
Most of the large-scale prints in the exhibition are from two series, Myths, created in 1981, and Cowboys and Indians, created in 1986, the last series made before his death in 1987 after gall bladder surgery.
Most are printed on black backgrounds, which make the bright colors and simple, graphic lines pop. His best ones are the most reductive: Hattie McDaniel's Mammy from Gone With the Wind; Margaret Hamilton cackling as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz; and Mickey Mouse.
His choices are interesting in this series given his penchant for female celebrities. Though he includes Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, he didn't use Vivien Leigh as Scarlett but her maid instead. No Judy Garland, either. (Liza Minnelli, her daughter, made the cut in 1979, but she was part of a series of portraits he made that included Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe as celebrity icons rather than characters in films and television.)
The show, which is on loan from private collectors Wesley and Missy Cochran, includes earlier and later works. Among the earliest are two from Flash Suite, a series made in 1968 that documents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. They are predictably darker and more obviously based on documentary photographs. Warhol accompanied them with copies of teletypes that fed information of the event to news sources.
A 1980 portrait of German artist Joseph Beuys is even darker — printed on black paper. Beuys seems an odd choice for Warhol's admiration. Though he was an avant-garde artist, his approach was intellectual and cerebral, not at all Warholian. But Warhol was attracted to some of his performance art, especially one in which Beuys occupied a room with a coyote over several days. Its absurdist premise must have appealed to Warhol, who presents him in a serious, documentary style.
Other prints from early and late in his career are illuminating. Warhol was a successful and admired commercial illustrator before he became a famous artist and two prints from 1974 allude to his first career. They are hand-colored flowers with a charm and delicacy unlike his mature work. He was famously close with a buck, but prints he made as part of fundraisers for the 1983 Olympics and in advance of the 2000 millennium indicate he had some heart for causes.
This collection reminds us of Warhol's skill as a printer and his innovative use of multiple screens slightly off-register rather than perfectly aligned to create drama and dimension on the flat surface. Count the colors on some of the prints, an indication of how many screens were used to make the final image, and you see how much manipulation went into a print that appears so simple. That's probably the most depth Warhol would ever admit to, but artistically, it's enough.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.