Warhol Museum sends out for clowns

Published Sep. 7, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

The Andy Warhol Museum's "Clown Paintings: From the Collection of Diane Keaton and Others" is comical, sad and sometimes downright creepy. Not all the paintings, though, are great works of art.

The show features the works of Donald Darlay, Robert Hope, Richard Baruta and V. Hee.


The 100 or so paintings by anonymous, unknown and perhaps bitter and tortured souls, went on display last month at the Pittsburgh gallery.

Keaton, the actor and director, became a collector several years ago when she said she spotted her first acquisition _ a white-faced clown wearing a cactus in a terra-cotta pot as a hat _ mixed among the clutter of a Pasadena Rose Bowl swap meet.

The Darlay piece, with its freakish, wagging tongue, is part of the Warhol exhibit, which continues through Oct. 26.

"They are remarkable and I think a version of the self-portrait. Some of them are very sad reflections of the people who painted them," Keaton said. "Obviously, there is also some association with the clothes I wear _ the idea of plaids, hats and also the idea of hiding."

Both loved and hated, clowns can elicit laughs from some and nervous stares from others, but have always evoked the curiosity of a car wreck.

"They descend upon children honking horns and shaking rattles," said Thomas Sokolowski, director at the Warhol. "On one hand they are delightful and on the other, rather horrific."

The exhibit gives viewers the chance to stare without the threat of catching the eye of the wily clown, he said.

Yet the show can still evoke chills from anyone suffering even a touch of coulrophobia. (Yes, there is a name for the fear of clowns.) And while a solitary clown painting hanging on a basement wall is easily passed off as kitsch, a roomful of clown paintings is something to behold, at least if you can handle it.

The Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., held a clown art exhibition last year that attracted an estimated 2,000 people, including Keaton.

"The turnout was excellent; the reactions were varied," said gallery director Robert Berman. "Some people couldn't stay in for a nanosecond. They ran out in fear."

Berman owns one of the largest known collections of clown paintings and has acquired works by Georges Rouault, Man Ray and Picasso. There are no recognizable names on the paintings at the Warhol, though some of Berman's pieces that are in the show are quite good.

He began collecting about a decade ago and has developed a criteria for the genre.

"Among the awful, most horrible paintings . . . you begin to find that some very special paintings surface," Berman said.

Berman looks for paintings where the canvas has been carefully stretched and meticulously nailed to the frame, and where it appears much time was spent in the creative process.

In Keaton's collection, there are canvases of black velvet and pieces that would likely reside at the bottom of the pecking order at starving artist conventions. Keaton said she does not consider any of her paintings kitsch, but also said she would not delve into clown paintings by the masters.

"I'm sticking to the anonymous stuff," she said.

Warhol, who painted Cabbage Patch Kid silk screens in the 1980s, would have welcomed the exhibit, Sokolowski said.

"You have a person in oversized and monstrous clothing, huge shoes, faces painted in such an abstract way as to sort of have the humanity taken out of them," he said.

"They can scare . . . you, but some of these paintings are quite extraordinary."

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