Snap, crackle, and pop art
Warhol exploited the system on which his art and celebrity was based.
BEACON, N.Y. — 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.
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.
Portraiture was an important part of Warhol's aesthetic throughout his career as he observed and eventually embedded himself in celebrity culture. His silkscreened head shots of the celebrated and prominent are displayed in pairs, identical except for the often-garish pigments the artist applied like so much gaudy makeup. The images, whether of stars like Judy Garland or Aretha Franklin or some now-obscure socialite or art collector, have a leveling affect. They confer a kind of consequence born not of accomplishment, but the mere fact of having been Warholized.
Portraiture accounts for the exhibition's major revelation, a series of so-called "screen tests" Warhol made between 1963 and 1966. Each "test" is a short 16mm film of an individual posing motionlessly in front of the camera. It matters less that the subjects are often famous (Lou Reed, Susan Sontag, Salvador Dali, even Duchamp himself); instead, the fascination comes from watching each ego present and compose itself in stillness. The slightest muscle twitch or flicker in the eye becomes riveting.
The richness of minutiae is also evident in Warhol's so-called "time capsules" - cardboard boxes into which he dumped everything that came his way over a period of time. The contents, including letters, magazines, snapshots, candy tins, and other ephemera, offer smatterings of biographical, artistic, historic, and sociological information - small threads of the strange, interesting tapestry that was Warhol's life.
While the time capsules reveal interesting bits, their banality casts the viewer as a deadpan observer of Warhol's existence. Ironically, the role offers a key insight into his art. Warhol embodied a wakefulness that did not discriminate between the significant and irrelevant. Under his gaze, the mighty and the lowly were equally as strange, equally as interesting, equally as worthy of being in a museum as he was himself.
• The Warhol exhibition continues at Dia:Beacon through April 10, 2006.
The exhibition of Andy Warhol's work at the Dia:Beacon museum is not only a cross section of the influential Pop artist's career.
As its title, "Dia's Andy: Through the Lens of Patronage" implies, it is also a commemoration of the key role the Dia Art Foundation has played in Warhol's career.
The foundation is dedicated to advancing the still-radical art that emerged in the 1960s and '70s, work that is typically conceptual, large scale, and often site specific. Since its founding in 1974, Dia has collected works by artists such as Dan Flavin, Cy Twombly, and others with "a loose idea of constructing individual museums for artists in the collection," says curator Lynne Cooke.
Dia collected Warhol from the mid 1970s to 1983, Ms. Cooke explains, and commissioned two major painting installations, "Skulls," which is in the exhibition, and the monumental "Shadows," which hangs on permanent display at Beacon.
After Warhol's death in 1989, Dia worked with the Carnegie Institute and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to found the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the artist's hometown. At the time, Dia donated nearly all its Warhols to the museum's permanent collection.
Warhol "was a man of few illusions," Cooke says. "He turns a mirror back to society. He's got a very stringent eye. He shows contemporary society something about its values, what it wants to conceal and reveal. He's a critic, but it's done in a droll and deadpan way, not in an accusatory way."
"You don't begin to see what's going on [in Warhol's work] unless you're really paying attention." she adds. Despite his celebrity persona, his art requires "a more meditative frame of mind."