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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Warhol, the Social Observer

Andy Warhol Self-portrait, 1986
Traditionally, one of the worst judgments that can be made about a person or about art is that of shallowness. With art, it's seen as doubly negative if both the art and the artist bear these qualities. Perhaps as a shield in defense of his own ego, Andy Warhol, his entire career, proclaimed himself shallow. "...If you want to know about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." And if you know Andy Warhol only by his popular image and popular work, this popular artist would seem to have had a good handle on his own character and psyche. Whether looking at a seemingly endless array of Campbell's soup cans or Jackies, or Marilyns, or Maos, the impression is easily attained that his art, at least, was quite shallow, all for show, all image, no meaning. Furthermore, his own efforts at self-promotion, his constant search for celebrity, his merry-go-round nightlife, his relentless pursuit of the limelight--attempting to be seen in all the right places with all the right people--would tend to underscore his own shallowness as well.

More to Warhol than met the eye
However, several years ago (2000-01), Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC took issue with this popular image of Warhol. With its exhibition, "Andy Warhol: Social Observer," the show's curators proposed the theory that this image of shallowness was, itself, a shallow fa├žade hiding a man who cared deeply about the society in which he lived, its social issues, its tragedies, and its triumphs. Assuming that the most likely criticism of Pop Art is that it is shallow, in pre-empting this criticism, in proclaiming himself a pure artist and his work pure art, Warhol attempted to deflect criticism when in fact, at times, he could be quite profound. The exhibition contained sections on death and disaster, advertising, politics, cover stories, celebrity, and symbolism. It displayed some of his most powerful series, Car Crashes, Most Wanted Men, Race Riots, Electric Chairs, as well as his ubiquitous Celebrity Portraits.

Despite the tendency of Pop Art to be "easy" art (easy to understand, that is), this aspect of Warhol's contribution to the genre is not. It's multifaceted and difficult to nail down. Warhol's life-long devotion to the photo for source material is evident at all levels, but while there is an attempt sometimes to conceal it, the hand of the artist is never far removed from the art product. The result is a surprisingly acute portrait of the mid-20th century, its culture, its cultural icons, certainly, but also its complexities, its still-unsolved social problems, and its sins of omission and commission.

Flash - November 22, 1963, 1968, Andy Warhol

One of the most telling pieces, Flash - November 22, 1963 (above),  makes use of Warhol's trademark panels (12 of them), except that each one, in this case, is not merely a color variation of the one before, but on the order of a late-breaking news story, a carefully organized montage of scenes fading from one into the other--among them a veiled Jackie, President Kennedy at a press conference, images of the blue presidential seal, a stark, black panel, concluding with a print of a constantly updated wire story culminating in the assassination. No artist has ever recounted the event with more insight or zeal. The result is a new image of Andy Warhol--a sly, sensitive, superlative reader of his own times, as shallow or as profound as he wanted to be at any given moment.

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