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Warhol for the masses

In a world of anonymity, we are like so many identical cans of soup.

Warhol, who gave us all those cans and called them art, also gave us hope.

In the future, he predicted, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.

Celebrity _ even for 15 minutes. Isn't that what life is all about?

A show opening Saturday at the Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, explores that idea as well as the artist's later portraiture and sense of mortality. "I wanted to show him in a rich and complex way," says guest curator William Jeffett, curator of the Centre for Visual Arts in Sainsbury, England.

Why is a show by the ultimate pop artist appropriate in a museum devoted to the ultimate surrealist? Both used the mass marketing ability of printmaking. More images, more money.

But Warhol used those techniques as an artistic statement in itself.

Pop art has its roots in Dada, which said it was okay to use junk in art. But Warhol's roots go back further, to the spread of printmaking, which made original art available to the common person via multiple images.

For Warhol, the medium was the silkscreen. It was ideal for exploring where we are in the latter half of the 20th century, our thoughts molded by the media explosion, our lives touched by the proliferation of cheaply produced goods, our dreams preoccupied by celebrity. Art, the uncommon, was remade for the common man, remade so he could understand it as dynamite image, whether or not he understood it as high art.

Here is an irony, because it succeeded as both low and high art. Warhol's art can be mindless, but to understand its concept, you have to use your mind.

He didn't paint the originals; he used photographs from mass media. He appropriated them, creating a substantially different work in content.

Warhol was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh and spent most of his career in New York, where he died in 1987. Originally a commercial artist, he became the most famous of the pop artists, a celebrity, known by his wild shock of white hair.

Unlike abstract expressionism, which preceded it, Warhol's pop art eliminates evidence of the human hand. It is impersonal, like a television picture tube. We see it. We don't feel it.

Marilyn. Jackie. Elvis. Mao. Grace Jones. All were produced in flat, impersonal silkscreen. They are not intended as portraits but as symbols, as icons. Each represents a dream elusive to all but a few: FAME. INSTANT RECOGNITION. But if you couldn't achieve the dream, couldn't you at least own a piece of acknowledged fine art that celebrated it? Wouldn't that validate your importance?

Celebrity has its down side. The portraits of Jackie or Marilyn or Elvis tell us that. In 1968 Warhol was shot by a member of the entourage that hung out in his factory. He never fully recovered either physically or emotionally. He would make more art; the art would make no radical new statements.

The show at the Dali covers the three decades of Warhol's career as a fine artist. The soup cans are there, and the cow, and the famous faces.

So are a lot of works the public may not recognize: a room installed with metallic helium balloons mimicking silver clouds from his second solo show, eight faces of Jackie at the time of JFK's death, portraits of artists Joseph Beuys and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a collaboration with Basquiat. The last three, done late in life, form a coda to his work, says Jeffett.

We think of Warhol's work as big, bold and bright. But some of the works are small, such as Electric Chair, 1965, and many are in black and white, such as Tuna Fish Disaster, a direct lifting of a UPI photo from 1963.

Those were done before Warhol was shot. Others, a skull, cross, guns and knives were done after. The skull, suggests Jeffett, may have referred to Warhol's heightened sense of his own mortality. But without seeing the dates, you wouldn't know.

To most silkscreen artists, getting colors in register _ lining the screens up so the ink stays inside the lines _ is essential. To Warhol it often didn't matter. Sometimes it worked better out of register, as with the two works with guns, sort of a rat-a-tat-tat effect.

The show packs a lot into just 21 works. Has to. Can anybody give it more than 15 minutes?


+ Where: Salvador Dali Museum, West Galleries, 1000 Third St. S., St. Petersburg

+ When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; Saturday through Aug. 9

+ Cost: Adults, $8; discounts for seniors, students, groups and children, and after 5 p.m. Thursday

+ Catalog: 50 cents

+ On loan from the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

+ More Information: 823-3767 (St. Petersburg)

On loan from the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh