Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life & Legends is showing through Feb. 15 at the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Road. (Andy's screen prints -- Cowboys and Indians -- will be showing through May 10 in the Dickson Gallery at the Mint.) So if you think you know who Andy Warhol is, a trip to the Mint before Feb. 15 is a good idea.
I thought I knew this guy -- Pop Artist, Celebrity and Ringmaster of that art factory printing silk screens, lithographs and money in New York City. I was right and wrong -- he's all that and more. Let's give the devil in the white wig his due.
Andy was humble in vision and vast in scope. He reached far across our cultural landscape and dug shallow. He lifted images from television shows, movie posters, fanzines, advertising, historical documents, fellow artists, and from the New York City streets where he wandered wide-eyed and wonderstruck. The Mint shows us bits of America belched through the Warhol Factory -- soup cans, mythic icons, endangered species, flowers, fruit and sunsets. Andy took hold of the things that took hold of us -- the mundane and profane and the fabulous, and returned them to us decorated, inflated and Andy-artified.
Andy Warhol -- the man, his art, his celebrity -- will evoke a response in any American old enough to know who put the Pop in Paparazzi, and the juicy juice in Campbell's soup. His legend (Celebrity + Death = Legend) is what makes us perk up to the sound of his name. To know the man is to opine:
"The most American of all artists."
"A flake, a fake, a poseur, a fag."
"King of Pop Art."
"Artist, director, designer, publisher ... party animal."
"Perve with a Polaroid."
Andy wouldn't cop to any of the labels, but he would applaud them all -- Bravo. You're talking about me.
Warhol is a Rorschach test for each of us.
Andy's interests were common and shared by most of us commoners. Andy publicized his interests, with panache and prejudice, and so revealed us in a very public way. We revel in or shrink from Andy's fascination and surrender to fame.
Muhammad Ali's face is beautiful, iconic, regal and made more so with background screen colors cobalt blue, pink, yellow and turquoise. He is made to look like a king or a saint, he is made to look tame and reflective, character assignations to Ali we cringe from, rise to or laugh at. Few would nod and walk away from this magisterial image of The Greatest with no opinion at all. Andy likes to stir the pot.
Andy's flower prints are 10 posters of hibiscus blossoms (an image lifted from a photograph in a 1964 edition of Modern Photography), reworked in 10 combinations of color. The possible color combinations are obviously endless, and Warhol chose some strange ones. One particularly arresting combination is yellow blossoms and lime grass on a black field. The 3-foot square screen prints come off as large swatch samples of wacky wallpaper -- bombastic and pushy, garish and gay. Many Warhol images are like this -- rubber-neck riveting, flamboyant and loud enough to grab our TV-shortened attention spans. But the work is always subtle, seemingly handcrafted and beautiful enough to hold our attention for the 30 seconds required to qualify as art.
"Making money is art and working is art. And good business is the best art." -- Andy Warhol
A portrait of Andy Warhol by photographer Karina Iohan greets us at the show's entry. He's in a crepe leather jacket, under a clownish white wig, and oversize black glasses frame eyes wide open. Ruddy skin stretched over a homely chiseled face, an expression somewhere between amused contempt and faint smugness. He's sated, content and ridiculous.
Howdy Doody, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Santa Claus and Uncle Sam. American mythmakers. These cartoons are the stuff of our cultural imagination -- superheroes, super villains, clowns. Uncle Sam shares the stage with Black Mammy. Each is a piece of our visual and cultural landscape, our collective memory, signposts for this century's cultural heritage. We all know this picture language, and what each image represents. Each of these myths is made stark and grand and big and loud. Clowns, villains, saviors and saints. Warhol pulls back the curtain to reveal the man behind these puffy myths is us, and he's happy to mine, remake and market our dreams. Mickey Mouse rules.
"An artist is someone who produces things that people don't need to have but that he -- for some reason -- thinks it would be a good idea to give them." -- Andy Warhol (intentionally sounding simple)
Andy makes the fruit taste better, the myths grander, and animals and people more regal and interesting than they really are. Muhammad Ali is thoughtful, composed and kingly. A bunch of grapes is fruit of the gods. The Bald Eagle is ... Wings of Freedom. Andy makes Campbell's soup taste good.
Andy writes our precious smallness large on the museum walls. This show is expansive enough to broadcast the man's talent and showcase his contribution to both American art and America's vision of itself. But at the same time, the show is small enough to digest. We're not suffocated with volume, left panting and scoping the gallery floor for a padded bench for a nap. Thank you, Mint curators.
Warhol was a dream weaver, storyteller and a mythmaker. Andy Warhol was Andy's most enduring myth. And like the myth of Ali, or Howdy Doody or the Bald Eagle, Andy's myth spinning left souvenirs in his wake. A brilliant product sampler of AndyWorld has been purchased, packaged, shipped -- and is being shared with us at the Mint Museum through Feb. 15.
Don't keep Andy waiting.
(The exhibit Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life & Legends is now showing at the Mint Museum of Art, 2730 Randolph Rd. For more info, call 704-337-2000 or go to www.mintmuseum.org.)