Andy Warhol was an interesting person who tried hard to appear uninteresting. The same can be said of his art. His marvelously quotable quips become unique, insightful observations when taken together, as in his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Much of his art, too, looks facile and slick when we stand before one of his works, trying to plumb depths that aren't there. But if we have the opportunity for a broad rather than deep experience, we see a visual version of unique, insightful observations.
"Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality." at the Dalí Museum gives us that opportunity. William Jeffett, special exhibitions curator at the museum, chose about 125 works from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Few among them are his most famous. Jeffett purposely left out the well-known commissioned portraits and print portfolios created primarily to generate income. And he said that much of the work from the early 1960s that made him famous — think soup cans — aren't in the Warhol Museum collection since it all came from Warhol's estate after his death and the artist had already sold most art from that era. Still, there's enough from the 1960s and plenty from the 1970s and 1980s to provide a good sweep of his career as a fine artist. (Nothing from his pre 1960s days as a successful commercial illustrator, either.)
Among the earliest are screen prints of dollar bills that were harbingers of Warhol's career. Perhaps it's an apocryphal story but the genesis of the idea is said to have come from a suggestion to Warhol to paint what he loved. He said he loved money so . . . Regardless of the anecdote's veracity, the dollar bills represented both the subject matter and process that would make him rich, famous and a critical lightning rod.
Popular culture: Warhol spent his adult life collecting images and people that represented it and then distilling them down in his spare screen prints. Celebrity especially fascinated him. An early example is the Jackie series in 1964 in which he used his signature technique of reproducing the same photographic image and manipulating it with cropping or color variations.
He was a true avant-garde filmmaker, subverting the assumption that the medium is about storytelling. His black-and-white films are plotless and, though they are shot in extreme closeup, they are detached and distancing. Three famous ones are in this show. Kiss consists of about an hour of couples kissing. It has zero sex appeal with a clinical aspect to it, as if we're watching animals in a lab.
Empire is legendary. Warhol filmed the Empire State Building in 1964 for more than six hours using a stationary camera set up in the nearby Time-Life Building. He slowed the 24 frames per second speed so it runs for more than eight hours. Like Kiss, it has no sound. It's just the top of the building as the day and evening pass. The only way visitors can watch it in its entirety is to go to the museum on Thursday when it stays open until 8 p.m. Is it worth such a commitment? I can't say since I haven't made it but here's what Warhol biographer Blake Gopnik wrote in the New York Times: "You'd expect after three or four hours . . . you'd be ready to slit your wrists, but the movie turns out to be gripping. . . . It keeps us thinking about what film is and does, what great buildings are all about and even how and why we look at things." (If any of you take on this assignment, I would love to hear about it.)
Several self-portraits require less time and are gripping, too. The most compelling was created in 1986, a year before his unexpected death at 58 after gallbladder surgery. Beneath one of his wigs, his face looks haunted with sunken cheeks and dark eyes. The red screen adds to the drama. Two other self-portraits show Warhol in near profile and the way he printed them demonstrates how small variations can alter our perception of an image in a big way. Both screens use heavily edited photographs that eliminate most facial details. One is screened in red, the other black and white. In the latter, Warhol uses a shadow effect that adds an abstract, sculptural quality to the print.
He loved Polaroid pictures and the exhibition has a slew of them, mostly picturing fellow artists and friends. There is nothing interesting about them aesthetically but they and drawings of more celebrities emphasize his reliance on a turning world that danced around his still point. Quite a few gelatin silver prints by and of him reinforce his penchant for the in-crowd, as do excerpts from his television programs.
Probably the most profound experience of his life was being shot and nearly killed in 1968 by a mentally unstable woman who was on the fringes of his coterie. References to guns and death begin making appearances in his work. One example is a large skull painting that uncharacteristically has identifiable brush strokes. In a drawing in homage to the great French artist Henri Matisse a woman poses with her hand resembling a gun to her head. Warhol covered a number of artists. In this show we see prints emulating Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico and Paolo Uccello.
In truth, I would prefer a gallery filled with works by Jasper Johns, a contemporary of Warhol's who also built his reputation on the concept of image appropriation. What Warhol has over him and other artists associated with the pop art movement and appropriation — Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, for example — and what I appreciate about Warhol is his belief that the material thing was worthy as a subject for art and didn't need to be a symbol or metaphor.
Marcel Duchamp had already begun the discussion questioning traditional definitions of art when he signed a porcelain urinal, put it on a pedestal and declared it a sculpture in 1917. Several generations later, Warhol wasn't interested in conceptual subversion. He died a wealthy man with no need to paint pretend money. He, who loved tabloids and their lurid sensationalism, was himself the subject of them. His art was much copied. He practically invented the New York underground film scene. He made pop art not just about popular culture but a form of popular culture as well. He collected fine art and cookie jars. He was a serious Catholic, going to mass almost daily. He dropped or snubbed people without guilt or regret. He was devoted to his dogs. He was better at one-liners than many professional comedians. He could paint. He was an interesting man.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.