From Warhol: real art or stunning wallpaper? Measured against Degas, his automobiles fall short

It may not have been such a good idea for the Guggenheim Museum here to mount a Warhol exhibition at the same time the Metropolitan Museum is scoring so heavily with its Degas retrospective, only a few blocks away. After all, while it's true that ``Andy Warhol, Cars'' is an interesting and, in some ways, worthwhile show, it pales into insignificance next to what Degas produced a century or so ago.

An unfair comparison? Especially since Degas is represented by the work of a lifetime (the exhibition was reviewed here Oct. 7) and Warhol by the work of roughly one year? Perhaps, but I think not, considering the high position Warhol occupies in our pantheon of 20th-century art heroes, and the amount of worshipful hype that surrounds everything he did. Quite the contrary: It is only fair that the work of anyone so famous be critically compared with that of the leading masters of both this century and the last.

It's also fair because this exhibition shows us Warhol close to - or actually at - his best. It certainly shows him at his most attractive and charming. There are 35 paintings and 12 drawings, all devoted to a single motif, the automobile, and presented either individually or in typical Warhol multiples.

They are part of an ambitious project commissioned by Mercedes-Benz in 1986 to depict 100 years of automotive history based on the Mercedes-Benz line. Warhol began with the 300 SL Coupe of 1952 and, when Mercedes expressed approval, went ahead to represent 20 cars, eight of them as painting sequences. His depictions of the first eight cars were finished by early January 1987, and three additional large-scale canvases were completed during the two weeks before his death in February of that year.

The incomplete series begins chronologically with a silk-screened and hand-painted image of Karl Benz and his sales assistant in the Benz Patent Motorcar of 1886, and ends with a straightforward but similarly executed representation of the company's 1970 Model C III Experimental Vehicle.

All are based on printed photographs projected onto prepared canvas and augmented by painted accents and a rich variety of colors on the cars and backgrounds and on flat, geometric shapes that serve as design components. By and large, color is used in a shrewdly contrapuntal and aggressively decorative way.

The entire show, in fact, is extraordinarily handsome and elegant, with the various vehicles fashioning richly colored patterns and designs as they stand out boldly in individual images or recede into extended grid systems. Not only is this one of Warhol's most sophisticated and stylish exhibitions; it's also one that shows off his strengths - a quirky imagination, a provocative color sense, and total independence of mind - to their best advantage.

On the other hand, it all remains very much on the surface. What you see is exactly what you get, and if ultimately it all seems rather empty and a bit silly, well, so it is. In fact, with the exception of ``Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Grand Prix Car,'' which stands out like an adult among children, the best one can say for the huge, multiple-image canvases is that they would make stunning wallpaper.

On view at the Guggenheim Museum through Nov. 27.

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