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Image from "Campbell's Soup I," screen print by Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, which is really saying something, considering the cavalcade of talent that came down the pike between 1900 and 1999. Warhol's contributions, both aesthetically and -- even more so -- conceptually, inspired and anticipated the current era in contemporary art.

Warhol can be credited with so many breakthroughs that it's hard to know where to start. Along with the other pop artists of the 1960s, he rejected formalist abstraction and brought recognizable subject matter back, thus predicting the narrative-art craze of the '80s and '90s. He successfully reconciled American high culture to popular culture, something that's still very much of interest to artists. He not only made paintings and prints, like his predecessors, but he also did installations, performances and films, like his artistic progeny would. In other words, Warhol was making art more than forty years ago that could be done today -- or even tomorrow.

These facts make a proper Warhol show such as Andy Warhol's Dream America, now playing at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, a must-see.

The exhibit was organized jointly by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Montana, where it debuted, and by the University of Oregon Museum of Art. Ben Mitchell, of Wyoming's Nicolaysen Museum, curated the project, using prints loaned by the Jordon Schnitzer Family Foundation, which has a mandate of collecting prints to loan to art institutions. The Schnitzer apparently has some very deep pockets, as it specializes in acquiring whole portfolios of prints. Thus, viewers have the opportunity to see entire Warhol series hung together, the way he meant them to be. It's amazing.

Dream America is not a retrospective, because it mostly looks at Warhol's prints. Although other aspects of his oeuvre are represented, they're included around the edges of the main part of the show.

Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh, to working-class parents who were immigrants from the Carpathians in Eastern Europe. He was a sickly child, and by all reports a major sissy with a love of beauty and Hollywood stars. He studied art at the Carnegie Institute in his home town, earning a B.A. in 1949, at which time he moved to New York City.

In the Big Apple, the fey young man from the Midwest became the fabulous world-class queen who would eventually achieve enduring fame. Being openly gay was not something easy to do at the time, even in New York, and it was certainly unacceptable in the two-fisted he-man club of abstract expressionism. These biographic details about Warhol's sexual identity are hardly irrelevant to his work, which more than anything else was based on the gay-identified idea of camp. With a camp sensibility, perceptions of things are turned upside down -- or maybe even sideways. You know, like turning a can of soup into an icon, as if his subject were the Madonna and child.

Despite anti-gay discrimination, Warhol's singular talent shone through, and in the '50s, he was able to build a successful career as an illustrator, with his most famous works being ads for I. Miller shoes. In 1961, he publicly presented his first fine-art pieces, a group of paintings based on comic strips and newspaper clippings used as backdrops for window displays at Bonwit Teller.

These debut paintings, despite their mass-cultural sources, still had a lot of highbrow expressionism in them, with areas painted out and scribbled over. The slightly later "classic" Warhol works did not. Instead, he adopted mechanical applications that moved away from the hand work and were, if anything, anti-expressionist.

It is at this point in Warhol's chronology that the Colorado Springs show picks up. It begins in the Garden Gallery with a multimedia installation of photos, reproductions, text panels and flat-screen monitors, including an enormous one showing images of Warhol being interviewed by various commentators in the 1960s. I've seen a lot of these informational displays and can safely say that this is one of the best. On a smaller screen at the end of the room is a loop of his famous moving portraits, in which the sitters were filmed in blocks of fifteen minutes. These were a literal working-out of Warhol's idea that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.

Dream America continues in the North Gallery, and though it has not been hung chronologically, it seems that way at first, because the earliest Warhols in the show are here. These pieces alone make the exhibit essential viewing, and they clearly demonstrate why Warhol remains a giant in the art world. There are two "Jacqueline Kennedy" prints from 1966 and, on the opposite wall, ten "Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn)" prints from 1967. In between is a lineup of ten iconic prints from "Campbell's Soup I," done in 1968. Finally, facing the soup cans, are eleven images from "Flash -- November 22, 1963," also from 1968. "Flash" is the least-known of these earlier series, but stylistically, it's the most amazingly forward-looking of them all. In these prints, Warhol has combined found photos of John F. Kennedy with various newspaper accounts about his assassination and an overlay of patterns of flowers.  

The various series of prints are extremely different from one another and linked conceptually more than stylistically. The "Jacqueline Kennedy" pieces are duotone silhouettes; the "Campbell's Soup I" works are straightforwardly representational; the "Marilyn Monroe" prints are abstracted with non-naturalist color selections; and the "Flash" images are abstracted through the layering of the compositions. Despite these differences, however, they all immediately say "Warhol." And they're all absolutely gorgeous.

As the show moves on to the East Gallery, its focus starts to wobble -- but so did Warhol's life. In 1968, he nearly died after being attacked by psychopath and radical feminist Valerie Solanis. (It's a great mystery to me why Solanis has been glamorized in recent years instead of being dismissed as a crackpot, which is what she was. Worse, she robbed us all of an unknown quantity of art that Warhol never got to make.) Having decided that Warhol exemplified the male domination of women -- an insane take, considering that he was gay -- Solanis went to the Factory, Warhol's studio, and shot him repeatedly. This event would derail him artistically and socially in the 1970s, and though he started to re-find his vision in the late '70s and early '80s, his wounds ultimately played a big role in his very untimely death, in 1987.

The sense of what happened is best exemplified in the East Gallery selections, where the ten Mao prints from 1972 are compared with "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century." The "Mao" prints pick up where the "Marilyn Monroe" prints left off. The "Ten Portraits of Jews," from 1980, are slicker and more self-consciously graphic. They are also very cynical, because their creation was market-driven, like so much else Warhol did during this time.

In the '60s, before the Solanis incident, he hung out with the weirdest crowd in New York (and that's pretty weird), a circle that included drag queens and male hustlers. After Solanis shot him, Warhol drifted toward the establishment, winding up with the likes of Bob Colacello, a Reagan sycophant, no less.

This could be called Warhol's Interview period, when he owned -- and Colacello edited -- the glam-rag periodical Interview. The South Gallery contains the ultimate Interview-style Warhols, his ten 1975 "Mick Jagger" prints, which, although among his most popular images, lack the spark of genius of his earlier works. Also in the South Gallery are the diamond-dust "Shoes," which have a graphic-design quality, too.

Toward the end of his life, Warhol was starting to get back on track. In the late '70s and early '80s, he was hanging out with the hip crowd again, notably befriending the twenty-something neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat and spending endless hours at famed nightclub Studio 54. This paralleled an improvement in the quality of his work, as revealed by the "Cowboys and Indians" series done in 1986, a year before he died. These prints are installed in the corner gallery between the East and South galleries, so viewers will need to backtrack in order to follow Warhol's stylistic development. In "Cowboys and Indians," he took a tongue-in-cheek look at Western art by including movie cowboy John Wayne and an Indian-head nickel among the images. The static and naturalistic handling of the colors has a paint-by-numbers quality. These prints are related stylistically to Warhol's last great paintings, which are based on the Old Masters.

Warhol was hugely famous during his lifetime, better known inside and outside the art world than any living artist today. In fact, Warhol dead is still more famous than any living artist. It's not just because he brilliantly manipulated his celebrity status, but, sadly, because events in contemporary art were more important to the general public than they are now.

The decision by CSFAC president Michael De Marsche to bring a feature like Andy Warhol's Dream America to a town known nationally as a center for the religious right was unquestionably courageous. In truth, though, it was also a little misguided: The crowds you might expect at a Warhol show have not materialized.

Dream America would have been a much better fit in the pot-smokin'-and-proud-of-it Mile High City -- at, let's say, Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. (Come to think of it, a star like Warhol is exactly what the MCA could use as a vehicle to bring in those final millions needed to erect its proposed David Adjaye-designed building.) Those of us who live up here need to take the trouble to drive down to Colorado Springs to see this beautiful and informative Warhol blockbuster. Conveniently, there's still a lot of time left to do it, as the exhibit continues through New Year's Eve.

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