Americans know and cherish the work of Andy Warhol for his silk-screened images of the famous, among them a turquoise and pink Marilyn Monroe, endless repetitions of Elvis and a somber Jackie O.
Warhol’s understanding of celebrity, though, went beyond red-carpet glamour and flashbulbs – he knew that with celebrity came great peril, which he had experienced firsthand.
Warhol’s “factory,” the New York studio where he and his assistants mass-produced art that glorified mass-produced objects, was the scene of his near-fatal shooting in 1968 at the height of his fame. Like so many of his celebrity subjects – Marilyn, Jackie O., Elvis – Warhol’s fame brought him tragedy.
The misfortune of fame is a pervasive theme in Warhol’s work, and is a large part of the Corcoran Museum’s exhibit on the artist, which will be open until Feb. 20. Don’t expect to be entertained by the infamous soup cans and smiling celebrities – while they are a part of this exhibit, they are only skimming the surface of Warhol’s psyche.
These well-known images are, however, the first a visitor to the exhibit will see. The show begins with Warhol’s silk screen and photo portraits, which allows one to walk through a veritable who’s who of 1960s celebrity. In addition to the aforementioned, there’s a big-haired Dolly Parton, a wildly colorful Alfred Hitchcock and even a young Michael Jackson. Also, portraits of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Debbie Harry and some self-portraits are there for good measure. Warhol makes for a convincing drag queen in a few.
But immediately following the celebrity – and past Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can series, appropriately hung adjacent to the Corcoran’s caf? – gloom sets in. Viewers are confronted with images of a fatal car crash, an electric chair, suicide victims plunging to their deaths, a veiled and mourning Jackie O and botulism-ridden cans of tuna, which are noted in the placard as having killed two women.
Moving through the exhibit, past a room full of abstractions – one of which is created with oxidized urine – there are more sobering sights to be seen. A room overwhelmingly full of silk screens and prints of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong only serves as a reminder of death and unrest, despite Warhol’s use of bright color and expressive brushstrokes.
Then comes Warhol’s series of guns, knives, crosses and money-themed work. On their own, these paintings, though still making a statement, are more ingenious – but hung together, and in the context of the previous artwork, they become all the more spooky. If all of the horror movies in the history of film could be summed up by a work of art, it would be Warhol’s “Knives.”
As scary as the exhibit sounds, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many of Warhol’s drawings that are shown are quite lighthearted – a playful kitten, an embellished monkey and cartoon-like sets of eyes. These drawings also take on a sexual nature with a series of nude male sketches, from which many parents, believing Warhol to be nothing more than Marilyn and soup cans, quickly ushered their children away. The sketches, from the very beginning and very end of his career, are relatively celeb-free sans a portrait of Princess Diana, but still tackle the subject of superficiality with his “Cosmetic Surgery” sketches.
The works in the show are borrowed from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the artist’s hometown, and the Corcoran seems to have been able to procure a diverse selection. What’s missing from the experience is Warhol’s film and installation work. An avid filmmaker, Warhol created cinema that ranged from feature film to pornography, but the only representation of this aspect of his life is the work “Screen Tests,” a short film where celebrities including Edie Sedgwick, Susan Sontag, Nico and artist Marcel Duchamp present themselves for headshots to his video camera, alternatively gazing into and away from the camera’s lens. Sedgwick, one of Warhol’s “factory superstars,” will be portrayed in the upcoming film “Factory Girl” by actress Sienna Miller, alongside Hayden Christiensen and Jimmy Fallon, in what will be the first film about Warhol in a decade.
Fame, as the silver-haired hipster artist came to know all too well, has its peril. And as he once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” But they had better watch their backs.
“Warhol Legacy: Selections from the Andy Warhol Museum” will remain at the Corcoran Gallery of Art until Feb. 20. Student admission is $4.