Snap, crackle, and pop art
Warhol exploited the system on which his art and celebrity was based.
Andy Warhol once notably predicted that everyone in America would be famous for 15 minutes. His prediction, which seemed to anticipate reality TV and 24/7 webcasts, was miscalculated on at least one count. The seminal Pop artist's own fame has endured for decades and shows no signs of decline.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, Warhol is considered by many experts as the most influential artist of the past 40 years. He is certainly one of the few in our time to have become a household name, having achieved art superstardom in the early 1960s. Up to the time of his passing in 1989 (just short of his 60th birthday), he exploited the system that formed the basis of his art and his celebrity, seizing the imagery of advertising, celebrity, and mass media, and transforming it into a mordant commentary on American culture.
For all his renown, however, Warhol remains a confounding figure to many. Yet as time passes, it becomes easier to see the myriad modes and moods of the artist as components of a cohesive worldview. A mini retrospective of sorts currently at the Dia:Beacon museum here offers a primer on the man and his work.
"Dia's Andy: Through the Lens of Patronage" has been mounted by the Manhattan-based Dia Art Foundation at its two-year-old contemporary art museum, a sprawling converted biscuit factory on the Hudson River 80 miles north of New York City. Dia:Beacon houses the foundation's collection of art from the 1960s and '70s, and features installations of many of the era's important figures.
Among the permanent displays is Warhol's 1978-79 installation "Shadows," 72 nearly identically sized paintings hung contiguously on the walls of a hangar-sized gallery. "Shadows" forms the nucleus of an exhibition that brings together well-chosen selections from important periods in the artist's career. The show's title refers to the Dia Foundation's history of collecting and commissioning Warhol (See story below).
Warhol was the creative heir to Marcel Duchamp, the Dada artist generally credited with inventing conceptual art. Like Duchamp, Warhol's greatest works are not so much precious objects as they are physical embodiments of ideas and attitudes.
Warhol was the leading figure in Pop Art, which dismantled distinctions between high-brow and pop culture. The movement, born in England, was committed to principles that rejected an exalted or heroic role for the artist and adopted the images, materials, and methods of mass communication. A central ingredient of Pop Art was an intellectual irony designed to puncture the elitism of the art world and the false claims of consumer culture.
Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" are among the best-known icons of the Pop period. First produced in 1964, the 60 on display at Beacon are replicas produced in 1969. The wooden sculptures are built precisely to size and silkscreened with the logo of the famous scouring-pad brand and are at first impossible to tell apart from the cardboard originals. As visual objects they aren't much to linger over, but they are rich with meaning. They do, after all, conform to the verisimilitude of the best Dutch still life or French trompe l'oeil, while suggesting that our culture has become so debased that shipping boxes are the logical counterpart of the past's noble subjects. And by presenting the boxes in series, Warhol commented on the impersonality and ubiquity of mass production.
Repetition of imagery was a signature of Warhol's work. (He became so interested in the psychology of the repeated image that he even produced his own wallpaper, which adorns some gallery walls with childlike drawings of the Washington Monument or a cartoon dairy cow.) A powerful grouping from his "Disaster Series" is based on newspaper photographs of gruesome accidents, each image repeated several times like frames of a newsreel. The works are primarily commentaries on the way misfortune is exploited in the media. Yet they also have a visceral strength of their own, as ruminations on human vulnerability against the mayhem of the machine age.