Through the Eyes of Andy Warhol
WITH HIS WHITE FRIGHT WIG, geeky black glasses and entourage of characters right out of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Andy Warhol knew how to stage a spectacle. Known as the Prince of Pop, he and his controversial artwork elicited a range of responses, from critical acclaim to public disdain. Outrageousness aside, Warhol’s greatest contribution was using art to make us think.
A series of bright red Campbell’s Soup can prints, the works for which Warhol is best known, are displayed in “Andy Warhol’s Dream America: Screenprints from the Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.” The exhibit, opening June 17 at the San Diego Museum of Art, features more than 100 prints from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Many of the works are displayed in complete chronological portfolios or suites, which gives visitors a rare opportunity to see the development of Warhol’s ideas. The collection includes suites of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao Zedong and Mick Jagger, along with prints of Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie I and Jackie II) and the series of Campbell’s Soup cans.
Like much of Warhol’s work, the Campbell’s Soup I screenprints portray a provocative dichotomy. Seeing them as a series, one feels the sense of indifference aroused by relentless brand advertising contrasted with that warm and fuzzy feeling inspired by the symbol of America’s most common comfort food.
Arguably the most significant pop artist of the 20th century, Warhol was born in 1928 to Czechoslovakian immigrants. He was a painfully shy, effeminate child who suffered from a condition known as St. Vitus’ Dance, brought on by a case of rheumatic fever. Like many who lived during the Depression era, Warhol longed for the promise of the American Dream, and he nurtured his fascination with fame and fortune by collecting autographed pictures of movie stars. He explored themes of celebrity, death and pop culture with art, photography and filmmaking until his death in 1987.
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,” Warhol observed in his 1975 autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.”
After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh with a degree in pictorial design, Warhol moved to Manhattan and became a successful graphic artist. In the 1960s, the silkscreen process was primarily used for commercial art, but Warhol used the medium to replicate an image, often taken from a photograph. Then he altered each picture with rich vibrant color and occasionally by drawing.
Warhol’s success was due in part to his prophetic sense of timing. Consider his screenprints of Marilyn Monroe, made shortly after her suicide. Her face will forever summon the media frenzy that came with celebrity. Her iconic beauty was plastered across magazines, newspapers and television screens. A shrewd observer of life, Warhol was clever to choose a highly recognizable image, but his genius was using repetition and color to provoke a more complex response to a face that haunted our collective consciousness.
Jordan Schnitzer, the collector who funded this retrospective exhibit, compares the impact of Warhol’s Marilyn series with the power of television and movies.
“Think about the way movies were made,” he says. “We see image after image, a character on a screen that moves, shows emotion and changes. When we look at Marilyn, she changes. The bright red lips portray sensuality, and the image that’s black and dark evokes a pervasive sense of concern and fear. Though it’s wonderful to see one image, you miss the point. It’s like a chapter out of a book. Warhol shows us multiple images, and they should be shown the way he made them.”
Warhol died of a heart attack after gallbladder surgery at the age of 58. He remains a cult hero, someone who could reveal truth and sentiment in a picture that represented an artificial commodity. His use of photography and film was groundbreaking. His screenprints succeeded, even more than contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, in blurring the line between high and low art.
“Andy Warhol’s Dream America” continues through September 10, and the museum will supplement the exhibit with films by and about Warhol. “When people attend a Warhol show, they see things that speak to them, things they recognize, and they get excited,” says Schnitzer. “These are the images of our time, and they speak to all of us.