Friday, September 30, 2005

The work of pop artist Andy Warhol, king of Campbell’s soup cans and brazen Marilyn Monroes, returns to Washington in “Warhol Legacy: Selections From the Andy Warhol Museum” — a collaboration between the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was full of contradictions: The same artist that silkscreened glitzy celebrity portraits also expressed his forebodings about violence and death in the gut-wrenching works in this exhibit’s “Death and Disaster” gallery. Stark, haunting images from mass media reproductions of 1960s car crashes, suicides, the Sing Sing electric chair that killed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination are among the exhibit’s most moving.

Later, the artist satirized America’s materialism — which he both loved and hated — with the “dollar sign” series, and depicted the nation’s violence — which he simply hated — with the “Guns, Knives, Crosses and Dollar Sign” series. The enormous red Sentinel “Gun” of 1981, hung high above the Corcoran’s Large Mantle Room’s traditional fireplace, is a showstopper.

Fitting into Mr. Warhol’s “celebrity” series, the roughly brushed “Mao” portraits — variations on Mao Zedong’s official portrait in his “Little Red Book” — and purple-faced Mao wallpaper seem laughable now. Displays showing Mr. Warhol’s more rarely seen abstractions and graceful, superb drawings (1950s-1980s) complete the presentation.

To understand the man is to know the art. Mr. Warhol cleverly hid his cynicism behind his dissolute persona and celebrity friendships. Born Andrew Warhola to a Slovenian immigrant family of six in a two-room Pittsburgh apartment, he trained at the city’s prestigious Carnegie Tech and became a highly successful commercial artist. He would become world famous by appropriating commercial art’s images and techniques for “fine art,” as he did, for example, with the 10 screenprints of “Campbell’s Soup I” (1968) that confront exhibit visitors in the Corcoran’s cafe, as well as the celebrity prints in the second gallery.

Mr. Warhol surrounded himself with hangers-on at his New York “Factory” studio, one of whom almost fatally shot him on June 3, 1968 — a psychic and physical wound from which he never recovered.

Portraits were always Mr. Warhol’s strong suit, so it’s appropriate that iconic celebrity portraits begin the exhibit. His huge, wild-haired, silver-printed “Self Portrait” of 1986 is the dramatic show opener — followed by the calmer, brilliantly hued acrylic-and-silkscreen inked “Dolly Parton,” “Marilyn Monroe,” “Clint Eastwood” and “Meryl Streep,” among others. Portraits are also the crux of his “Screen Tests,” portrait films shot in 1960s New York, which conclude the exhibit.

The dependence of Mr. Warhol’s portraits on photography — Polaroids and informal photo booth image strips, for example — is revealing. “John Giorno” is a photo booth photograph, as is “Self-Portrait With Bobby Short.” Mr. Warhol’s then-shocking “Self-Portrait in Drag” is a facsimile Polaroid , as is his larger, woebegone color “Self-Portrait” of 1979.

The “Abstraction” gallery is a disappointment. To mask a lack of inspiration, Mr. Warhol used urine in his 1978 “Oxidation Painting” — a likely challenge for future museum conservators. Moreover, he flecked diamond dust across the exhibit’s “Shadows II,” six screenprints on paper from 1979, and brushed swaths of acrylic-and-silkscreen ink across his huge “Shadows” canvas of 1978 — something abstract-expressionist Franz Kline could have done far better.

Andy Warhol uncannily and frighteningly foreshadowed today’s many-faceted obsessions, moral dilemmas, violence and materialism. In this thoughtful survey, the Corcoran wisely concentrates on the irony and seriousness behind his art — the “dark side” of Mr. Warhol.

WHAT: “Warhol Legacy: Selections From The Andy Warhol Museum”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays but open on holiday Mondays. Through Feb. 20 .

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 seniors and U.S. military personnel, $4 for students with current ID, $3 for member guests, free for guest and children under 12, “pay as you wish” on Thursdays after 5 p.m.

PHONE: 202/639-1770


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