By Desi Rubio, March 12, 2015. Photos courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Widely remembered as the decade of peace, love and pop art, the ‘60s was a thrilling decade. This era saw world-changing events ranging from anti-war and civil rights movements to the Space Race and the emergence of pop culture.
It was also during the 1960s that respect and reverence was given to the fame and celebrity – and no one respected that lifestyle more than Andy Warhol.
For the first time ever, Arizonans are offered a glimpse into the mind of an American art icon and can experience his work in person at the Andy Warhol: Portraits exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, which runs through June 21.
According to Catherine Ingram’s biography, This is Warhol, as a child, Warhol was fascinated by Hollywood and often wrote to such stars as Shirley Temple. He was intrigued by the aesthetics of celebrity life, obsessed with power and beauty and he fantasized about reaching his own fame and fortune someday.
But until that day came, he focused on what he did best: draw.
Warhol graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949, majoring in pictorial design, and went on to gain experience as a commercial artist in New York City shortly thereafter.
There, in the birthplace of post-World War II’s abstract expressionism, Warhol launched his career as a window dresser, book illustrator and contributor to such magazines as Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen.
Dissatisfied with this line of work, Warhol stopped making paintings based on comic strips in 1960 and, instead, created an image that would forever changed the art game: the Campbell’s Soup can.
Harsh criticism followed. Critics were outraged by Warhol’s creation, primarily because it wasn’t an original piece of art. Warhol’s response? A year later, exhibited 32 varieties of the Campbell’s Soup can in his first Pop exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles.
“Critics were not seeing clearly about his strong message about our cultural images such as Coca-Cola bottles or soup cans,” said Jerry Smith, Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of American and European art to 1950 and Art of the American West. “Those materials resonate strongly with us today.”
From there he quickly became “the master of repetition” and would apply this method to countless future projects.
When his work was not centered pop culture, Warhol took on another controversial technique: portraits.
Upon arrival at the exhibit, guests are greeted by a 9-foot self-portrait of Warhol. The homage to one of the most influential figures in Contemporary art serves as a sample of the experience that awaits them.
The exhibition includes 200 portraits Warhol created between the 1940s and the 1980s, as well as some of his early drawings, videos and paintings. The collection is surrounded by colorful backgrounds, all complimenting the use of color in his work. Rich yellow and bright pink walls make the space feel funky and cool – just like the artist’s most successful decades.
Through his portraits, Warhol invited onlookers to see beyond the face of the subject to understand the emotions hidden under the surface. This was controversial, in large part, due to the fact that critics believed he was capitalizing on tragedy.
“It is really fascinating how Warhol looked at people as though they were products,” Smith said. “The humanity of the work is really powerful if you allow the images to really sink in.”
Walking through the space, guests will recognize many of the subjects of these portraits, including Sylvester Stallone, Prince, Queen Elizabeth II, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
The day Marilyn Monroe died of an apparent overdose in 1962 Warhol quickly requested a publicity still of her and created one of his most famous pieces, Marilyn. He produced several variations of bright neon colors and challenged viewers to see the sadness in her eyes as she struggled with heartbreak and drug addictions. According to Warhol, when the Marilyn’s lie adjacent to one another, he could see a different facial expression on each of them.
In 1964, he painted the Jackie, a series based on photos taken of the former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy before and after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.
“Warhol was fascinated and bothered by TV and radio telling people how to be sad,” Smith said. “The image is the brand, and we can’t really know the brand, but we recognize the celebrity.”
When Warhol wasn’t working (a rare occurrence) he was capturing everyday moments on film with his Bolex camera. His life in New York City was surrounded by fascinating and attractive characters – from drag queens and boyfriends (who often worked as his assistants) to drug addicts and era socialites – all of which served as muses at one point or another.
“He treated every person in a similar manner and was very accepting” Smith said. “When he looked into their faces, he didn’t think anything else really mattered.”
Warhol is also known for his voyeurism and homoerotic films such as Blow Job, 1963, and Lonesome Cowboys, 1968. His home, known as “The Factory,” became a hotspot for work and partying in the mid-1960s and according to This is Warhol, he often watched people party as he had the camera rolling capturing every moment.
A separate room of the exhibit features a host of televisions playing his experimental films, such as Sleep, Eat and Kiss. Even Warhol’s MTV special, “15 minutes with Andy Warhol,” which underscores Warhol’s belief that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes in their lifetime, will be showcased.
Andy Warhol: Portraits
Through June 21
Phoenix Art Museum
1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Selfies versus Andy’s
He often had his clients snap a selfie in a photo booth as the base of his work, enlarged the image, traced it with paint, and then applied a silkscreen over it.
“If Warhol was still alive today, we wouldn’t be calling these photos selfies, we would be calling them Andy’s,” said Jerry Smith, Phoenix Art Museum’s curator.
Warhol’s technique of taking lower-quality art forms, such as a Polaroids or photo booth strips, and turning them into fine art through the use of silkscreen and brightly colored paints is, according to Smith, one technique that makes Warhol’s work so unique.
Regardless of what the current popular name is for photo trends and technology, there are remnants of Warhol’s innovative techniques all around us. With the right combination of apps on your smartphone, you could create your own Warhol-esque portrait in a matter of minutes. But we’d advise checking out the exhibit for some creative inspiration first.
Andy Warhol’s More Controversial Pieces
The Andy Warhol: Portraits exhibition brings more than 200 pieces of the artist’s most recognizable work to the Phoenix Art Museum through June 21.
According to Jerry Smith, the museum’s curator, some of Warhol’s pieces are more controversial than others and this exhibit features a few of the that are especially notorious for their timing, connotation and controversy.
Here are some of the artist’s most widely known and highly controversial bodies of work:
1. Marilyn, 1964
The image of Marilyn Monroe with a pink face, golden yellow hair and turquoise eye shadow is easily one of Warhol’s the most notable Pop paintings. Recreating a moment late in Marilyn’s life was not easy for the general public to understand. The day after the actress died of a drug overdose, Warhol quickly requested a photo of her to produce as a portrait. He received the image shot by Gene Korman from the 1953 film Niagara, and applied his signature silkscreen technique to it, highlighting Monroe’s features with the use of bold colors.
Later, critics proposed the portrait was Warhol’s attempt to capitalize on the tragic death of an American movie icon. However, Warhol defended himself by challenging people to sense her personal struggles behind her glamorous life.
The Marilyn prints (synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas) were later sold for millions; one of is on display at the Phoenix Art Museum as part of the exhibit.
Source: This is Warhol by Catherine Ingram, 2014.
Following the assassination of the country’s 35th President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963, the nation stood completely still. Warhol, who watched the story unfold on television along with the rest of the nation, was upset at how the media was evoking certain emotions.
“I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart – but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad,” Warhol once said.
In 1964, Warhol decided to capture the facial expressions from the news images in Life magazine, enlarge them and re-create the image of her reactions (before and after her husband’s assassination and also at his funeral) in a series he titled, 16 Jackies.
The four-by-four grid alternates rows of a smiling, content Jackie with a grim and dismal widow who is heavily grieving. Again, critics believed this particular series was controversial because he was capitalizing on the Kennedy tragedy.
Three installments of this series (synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas) are on display at the Phoenix Art Museum as part of the exhibit.
Source: Andy Warhol: POPism: The Warhol 60s by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett; and Jerry Smith, Phoenix Art Museum’s curator.
3. 13 Most Wanted Men, 1964
Controversy and scandal sparked a few days before the very popular 1964 New York World’s Fair opened. Warhol’s fascination with the famous and infamous led to his decision to produce a mural that included mug shots of the 13 most wanted men of 1962.
After retrieving the photos from an NYPD database, he enlarged each mug shot to fit onto 48-inch square (each square displayed the front and side profile of wanted men). On April 15, 1964, he had assistants hang the massive grid on the outside the New York State Pavilion for all to see. It remained visible until authorities painted over it with silver paint days later – just in time for the first day of the fair.
13 Most Wanted Men (printed in silkscreen ink on Masonite) is on display at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
4. Little Electric Chair, 1965
As part of his “Death and Disaster” series, Little Electric Chair deals with a controversial topic of the 1960s in New York: In 1963, Eddie Lee Mays, convicted for murder and robbery was executed and his execution was the last one for the state. Little Electric Chair was Warhol’s attempt to bring viewers into the grim scene through his artwork and criticism followed. Many began to wonder if Warhol could ever show any empathy toward human emotion, grief or death.
Little Electric Chair (synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas) is located at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Source: This is Warhol, by Catherine Ingram, 2014.