Thursday, October 27, 2011

Work in Progress: Thinking about Warhol

Yesterday my visiting parents and I went to two Andy Warhol exhibits in Washington, one a series of works that dealt with Warhol’s fascination with tabloid headlines:  “Warhol: Headlines” at the National Gallery, East Wing.  The other exhibit was at the Hirshhorn (which is fast becoming one of my favorite art museums):  “Shadows,” which was a stunning use of space to display a provocative series of canvases that brought to mind many questions about the nature (and purpose) of art.  I highly recommend it.  (Read more here, and see a picture of the installation.)

The Hirshhorn is a round building with a courtyard (think doughnut shape) and they have devoted virtually the entire length and curve of the second floor to this series of large panels that are the same silkscreened image of photograph of a shadow from (I believe) Warhol’s study floor.  The images were then finished off with mop-strokes of bright paint.  There are 102 canvases, and this is the first time they’ve all been displayed together. 

From the brochure:

“…the Shadows series was conceived as one painting in multiple parts, the final number of canvases determined by the dimensions of an exhibition space. The canvases were installed edge to edge, a foot from the floor, in the order that Warhol’s assistants, Ronnie Cutrone and Stephen Miller hung them.”

The effect is remarkable, endless color and variations that force the mind to try to organize and find logic (my mind, anyway).  And yet, Warhol himself did not set the order.  And since all of the canvases were not displayed in the orginial opening, we were told that that the last 19 canvases in the series in this display were determined by the curator, who hung them based on the order that she pulled them out of the boxes.  (Warhol would approve of that, I bet.)  Even knowing that, I tried to find reason and logic for quite a long while, before just giving in.  The guide in the gallery suggested that we think about movement and view it the way one would view a sculpture.  And what about “one” painting that can’t be seen in one single moment?  Anyway—so much to ponder!

And then this, from the museum website:  “When questioned whether the paintings were art, Warhol answered ambiguously, in his characteristically self-deprecating tone: “No. You see, the opening party had disco. I guess that makes them disco d├ęcor.””

Oh, perhaps.  And who am I to say anything even semi-definitive about the visual arts?  But the reason I preferred this to the other exhibit (which you can read about and see here), is that I felt as though I got the gist of the headline paintings quickly*; it was like a joke, and once you understood it, sure, there was the pleasure of being an “insider,” but that pleasure is fleeting.  What I’ll probably remember most from that exhibit is that Warhol and Keith Haring cooperated on some headline paintings, including one from 1985 about Madonna’s recently revealed sex photos, and they gave one to Madonna as a wedding gift when she married Sean Penn, and we wondered which of them ended up with it after the divorce.

On the other hand, that, too, might please Warhol.  In any event, the man was a genius.  Since he was always a dozen steps ahead of the culture, I’d love to know what he’d be doing now, if he were alive.

Here’s the review of both shows from the smart Washington Post art critic, Philip Kennicott.

And in the gift shop, I read this utterly charming picture book about Andy Warhol’s dozens of cats, a fun and true(ish) tale told by Warhol’s nephew, James Warhola.  (There’s a drawing of a cat sleeping in Uncle Andy’s wig drawer!)

*Disclaimer:  I’m not saying I’m an art critic—!!!—just that this exhibit did not capture my mind and imagination.  Philip Kennicott (above) found much to admire and study in the Headlines exhibit.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.