“Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” —Andy Warhol.
The name Andy Warhol represents one of those iconic American trademarks of which the mere mention immediately channels images in the mind’s eye of screenprint soup cans and multicolored Marilyns. Warhol had a way of observing the landscapes of manufactured consent and consumerism we take for granted in our day-to-day lives and reflecting our complacency back to us through a variety of color-plated repetitions. His art reflects society in unusually unexpected ways, or perhaps society reflects his art in unusually unexpected ways; Andy would never tell us which.
But those same prototypical images that lead us to believe we have an understanding of Warhol’s contribution to 20th century American art are misleading. We think we know Warhol, but the prolific exhibit on display now at Portland Art Museum (PAM)—over 250 prints and innumerable strategically-placed ephemera—lead us to believe otherwise.
Now through Jan. 1, 2017, PAM presents “Andy Warhol: Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation,” and the exhibit is the largest print retrospective of Warhol’s ever assembled in one place.
Museum Director Brian Ferriso, art collector Jordan Schnitzer, and exhibit curator Sara Krajewski collaborated to resurrect Warhol’s art house, The Factory, as well as the infamous Studio 54, where Warhol and so many pop culture celebrities lived, worked and played. PAM engaged with local design firm Ziba to collaborate on the logistical and sequential aspects of viewing such an expansive collection, and the design they came up with is definitely a trip.
Warhol’s recalcitrant take on the propaganda of mass media dissemination is manifested in the exhibit’s opening foyer—a wall of Mao-patterned wallpaper beneath the full battery of screen printed faces of the 1970s era Big Brother. Warhol’s neon-and-pastel colored lips give flesh to the face of fear, sometimes condescending and dark, other times menacing, others yet charming. A wall projection demonstrates the one-color-at-a-time process of layering Chairman Mao’s screen print countenance and subsequently stripping it away.
“Warhol utilized art in a conceptual way and shared his commentary on our times,” Krajewski said.
The upper level of the exhibit leads viewers on a chronological tour of the artist’s prolific career and dimensions of expression. Polarizing shifts in influence convey a sense of turmoil within Warhol’s critique of the consumer culture that drove the United States during the post-WWII decades, and the expanse of his eye leaves the viewer a little on the dazed side—as if you’ve just witnessed an overwhelming truth that causes you to reconsider beliefs you’ve long held sacred. Warhol recognized the cult of personality in the mainstream and dissected it, one screen at a time.
“He was always consuming images, digesting them and reproducing them,” Krajewski said. Warhol’s fascination with pop culture, mass-produced imagery stemmed from the confounding manipulation of mass-produced, mass-marketed creativity. Art en masse both celebrated Warhol and tortured him. It made him famous and it alienated him. His lifestyle bled from his work, and his work bled from his lifestyle, as his experiments in design and proliferation of repetitive imagery bled into experiments with the pitfalls of celebrity. At a time when the most revered creative minds in music, film, and art were falling prey to drug overdose with alarming regularity, Warhol found a sprinting stride of productivity, cranking out iconic images in factory-like efficiency.
“It was like a weird portal in time where all the beauty that was surrounded by all the ugliness of New York City all came together at one time,” said Portland State student and self-described Warhol enthusiast Alanna Madden.
The most readily familiar characteristic of Warhol’s style is the repetition of the same image in various color plates—screen print—although the artist perpetually expanded on his own theses through portraiture, pencil, and play. Some of the most amusing elements of the exhibit are the lithograph shoe prints, the cats, the faux cookbook—toys, really, and you feel a sense of playfulness among the cynicism of Warhol’s demeanor. The stuff is oddly childlike with uncanny intentionality.
Worth bearing in mind is the cultural status quo in which Warhol was working, an era before mainstream homosexuality was acknowledged or accepted. When museum-goers round the corner into the exhibit’s room of homoerotica, the viewer is taken with the juxtaposition of male physiques in positions mainstream commercialism had conditioned the mind to expect in the binary love of two separate genders. A supine, supple arse with male anatomy suspended below, arched and inviting to another man. Andy recognized the hypocritical tendencies in our preconceived judgements of all that we survey, all the time, everywhere.
“Andy Warhol will probably go down in history as the most important artist of the latter 20th century,” Schnitzer said. “His themes, one after another after another were brilliantly picked and brilliantly executed. Executed with screen prints, which is the easiest way of making art, and that was part of his theme. He was a big believer in the democratization of art. He rebelled against the idea that art was only for an elitist few in museums.”
Can we now claim to know Warhol, having experienced the massive collection and toured its accordioned chronicle of the artist’s portfolio? No, but we can claim to know him better. Do we claim to now understand Andy? Can anyone claim to understand Andy? Portland Art Museum’s Andy Warhol exhibit: just go there.