- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2000

My wife met the late pop artist Andy Warhol at a party in New York once. Without her asking, he wordlessly thrust an autographed copy of his magazine, Interview, at her and moved on.

Mr. Warhol knew that's what people want from their celebrities. His preoccupation with fame — those around him as well as himself — comes through colorfully in "Andy Warhol: Social Observer," a new exhibit opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

This collection of 86 paintings, photos, prints and one eight-hour movie features celebrities from all over the map: President Ronald Reagan, former Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung, the late entertainer Judy Garland, and, of course, the multiple Marilyn Monroes. (A 1977 silk-screen print of O.J. Simpson, looking dispassionate as he holds a football, takes on a frighteningly new meaning since the former football star's murder trial several years ago.)

Yet exhibit curator Jonathan Binstock insists that beneath Mr. Warhol's incessant need to be surrounded by the famous was a quiet observer of social issues and pop culture.

"Warhol came in on the heels of abstract expressionism," Mr. Binstock says. "There were these artists made to represent their tortured souls on the canvas.

"Warhol came on the scene and painted Campbell Soup cans."

Mr. Binstock is assistant curator at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where this exhibit was launched in June. He divides the exhibit into sections: Disguise, Death and Disaster, Politics, Cover Stories, Advertising, Celebrity and Symbolism.

Perhaps the keystone of the exhibit — getting to the root of Mr. Warhol — is his self-portraits. Early Warhol is in the 1964 twin set, "Self-Portrait," showing him in dark glasses and trench coat, "a veritable sleuth" writes Mr. Binstock in the exhibit's accompanying catalog.

The green canvases segue neatly into his 1986 "Camouflage," a silk-screen ink and polymer paint canvas. It's a pool of swirling greens, blacks and tans.

This provides the bridge to another set, "Self Portrait" (1986). The reds, whites and pinks resemble the camouflage of the earlier canvas, yet they don't obscure the straw wig, dark eyes and gaunt face, perhaps the artist's way of surrendering — maybe happily? — to his recognizability.

"The ambivalence never goes away, and in a sense becomes one of the crucial subjects of the exhibition," Mr. Binstock says.

In the section titled Death and Disaster is "Sixteen Jackies," synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, featuring 16 shots of the same face: the grieving widow of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, wearing her black mourning veil. The repetition, as well as the blurriness of Jacqueline Kennedy's face, softens the moment while maintaining its funereal starkness.

The president's murder is represented in another set of 11 color screen prints, one colophon print of text, titled "Flash — Nov. 22, 1963." In between is "The Little Electric Chair," a 1965 red-on-blue large silk-screen of an electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison. It acts as a chronicle of violence of the 1960s, both legal and illegal. Other such images, the silk-screens "Car Crashes," "Most Wanted Men No. 1, John M" and "Race Riots," enhance Mr. Warhol's view of a society often crippled by its lesser angels.

The show also highlights Mr. Warhol the pack rat. When he died in 1987, he left boxes and boxes of New York tabloids he had been saving since 1968. One of the exhibits, "New York Post Front Page," synthetic polymer paint and silk-screen ink on canvas, featured three pages of the New York Post from Oct. 24, 1983, which reported the terrorist bombings against U.S. Marines in Beirut. An abstract screen print on Mylar features the same New York Post story about the Beirut bombing. The headline "Could this happen again?" The violence with which the paper is crumpled tells us, yes, it will happen again.

"When you look at these observations together," Mr. Binstock says, "we get a sense of an artist who was deeply engaged and concerned. He was not at all the superficial figure that he was made out to be."

WHAT: "Andy Warhol: Social Observer"WHERE: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, today through Feb. 19TICKETS: $5 adults, $3 seniors and member's guests, $1 students, free for member and children age 12 and underPHONE: 202/639-1700WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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