More than 20 major examples of Andy Warhol’s first photo-silkscreen paintings juxtaposing his iconic serial images of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, and Elvis Presley with the artist’s evocative and at times disturbing appropriations of car crashes, electric chairs, and other “disasters” will be on view in the Walker Art Center exhibition ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964 premiering November 13, 2005–February 26, 2006. Following its presentation in Minneapolis, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
Considered one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century, Warhol was intimately involved in the early genesis of Pop Art in New York, creating a body of work spanning three decades that addressed American culture’s unequaled fascination with celebrity and the tragedy of anonymous “disasters” in a world defined by the increasingly voracious and virulent expansion of popular mass media. He was one of the first American artists to investigate this cultural obsession in a body of silkscreen paintings created in the mid-1960s that drew their source materials from the magazines, films, and newspapers of American pop and filtered them through a painterly technique that employed photographic silkscreen reproduction. Warhol’s early use of this technique established his revolutionary contribution to both the history of painting and contemporary art.
ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA takes its starting point from the moment in Warhol’s career when he shifted his practice from handmade “Pop” paintings such as his soup cans to the mechanical reproduction of the silkscreen process. Producing his serial portraits of movie stars concurrently with appropriations of numerous deaths and disasters reported in the print media, Warhol provided a glimpse into a prevailing condition of American modernity—our dual fascination with celebrity and tragedy—that today remains a key component of our national identity.
Warhol’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe began just after her suicide on August 5, 1962, at the same time that he began making silkscreen paintings. His numerous impressions of Marilyn rendered in single and multiple formats, derived from an iconic black-and-white publicity image of the movie star, were, according to the artist, related to the theme of death. As he suggested in ARTnews magazine in November 1963, “I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper; 129 DIE. I was also painting Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death.” On view in the exhibition will be Marilyn Diptych (1962), from the collection of Tate Modern, London, composed of 50 silkscreen repetitions of Monroe’s publicity still rendered in garish, oversaturated colors or in black-and-white. Joining this signature masterpiece will be the Hirshhorn Museum’s _Marilyn’s Lip_s (1962), a massive canvas that isolates Monroe’s evocative lips and reproduces them 162 times, once again in color and black-and-white. Warhol’s repetition of these images is as much an homage to a recently fallen American icon as a reflection of the rapaciousness of both Hollywood and the media in creating, consuming, and discarding its subjects. “What is clear from Warhol’s work is that his early paintings of celebrities were just as much ‘disasters’ as his bodies of more typically couched works such as the suicides, car crashes, electric chairs, and race riots,” says exhibition curator Douglas Fogle. “Monroe was herself a disaster, a ‘bad star’ if you will, having flamed out like a supernova after a phenomenal rise to stardom.”
The exhibition moves from Warhol’s images of then-contemporary celebrities Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet, 1963, and Blue Liz as Cleopatra, 1962), Elvis Presley (Elvis I and II, 1963), Jackie Kennedy (16 Jackies, 1964), or interestingly even crime figures from the FBI’s Most Wanted list, into an image world defined by the tragic consequences of both random and state-sponsored violence. In Warhol’s monumental monochromatic repetitions of car crashes such as his iconic Green Disaster #2 (1963), Orange Car Crash (1963), or the black-and-white Saturday Disaster (1964), the artist appropriates, enlarges, multiplies, and transfers news photographs of terrible car wrecks. These anonymous, frequent, and all too ordinary car crashes, offer up a portrait of a culture defined by what the critic Peter Schjeldahl once referred to in these paintings as “plebian catastrophes.” Rendered in multiple colors and in black-and-white, these works are everyday reminders of our cultural obsession with tragedy and death.
Taking on the quality of the memento mori prevalent in Renaissance paintings, Warhol’s car crashes are joined in the exhibition by another group of “disasters” in the form of his series of electric chair paintings and his tuna fish disasters. In a wide range of paintings including Lavender Disaster (1963), Warhol repeats a single solemn image of an empty electric chair. Repeated 15 times on a bright lavender canvas, the sobriety of this found image contrasts sharply with its status as the definitive marker of the failure of the social contract. As in so many of these works, Warhol transforms this mute photograph through its multiplication and its translation into garish colors. Unlike his other works from this period, the electric chairs are tragedies waiting to happen and a sign of the banality of death in a culture that defines itself through its portrayal in the mass media. But tragedy comes in many forms and sometimes it is the sanitized and prepackaged world of consumer products that turns on us to provoke another kind of disaster. Warhol’s Tunafish Disaster (1963) takes as its subject the deaths of a number of people from tainted cans of commercial tuna fish. Here the glossy, hermetically sealed world of everyday mass-produced commodities that forms Pop art’s field of dreams comes back to haunt us as consumption leads to tragic death.
Because of his oft-quoted statements such as “I want to be a machine,” Warhol was often taken for, at best, a dispassionate and at worst a cynical commentator on his chosen subjects. There is, however, something incredibly human and sympathetic about these images in contrast to the now commonplace and somewhat clichéd interpretation of his paintings as being disengaged from the world. This humanistic aspect of his work becomes clear in Warhol’s picture of Jacqueline Kennedy, 16 Jackies (1964), which entered the Walker Art Center’s collection in 1968. It is with 16 Jackies that the exhibition comes full circle back to the interplay of celebrity and tragedy that defined Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe. His near obsession with press photos of Jackie before and just after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963 resulted in a large body of paintings devoted to these photographs. In these works, the artist at once enshrines Jackie as a tragic widow while at the same time invokes the end of a hope-filled period of youthful exuberance that would come to define the “Camelot” image of Kennedy ‘s presidency. When taken together with his “race riot” paintings such as Pink Race Riot (1963), which derive their source material from a newspaper photograph of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, Warhol’s paintings from this period start to take on the character of history paintings that illustrate the end of what Henry Luce once called “the American century.” While Warhol once suggested that he was not a political artist, stating, “I feel that I represent the United States in my art but I’m not a social critic,” these works have a sensibility in them akin to that of Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings illustrating the incredible brutality of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. In looking back at Warhol’s disasters—whether they depict the tragic consequences of consumer culture in the form of car crashes or more obliquely address the state of the world by looking at our culture’s obsessive production and consumption of celebrity—it becomes clear that little has changed in American culture and that these masterpieces are as radical and relevant today as they were in 1964.
The Walker was among the first American museums to collect Warhol’s work, which has been included in nine exhibitions since 1967. Andy Warhol Drawings: 1942–1987, organized by the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and Kunstmuseum Basel, traveled to the Walker in 1999.
ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962-1964 is accompanied by a richly illustrated 144-page catalogue featuring some 50 color plates of major paintings by Warhol and essays by Francesco Bonami, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Fogle; and David Moos, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, addressing a variety of themes found in the artist’s work with a special emphasis on his connection to American art history and popular culture. The catalogue will be distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 155 Sixth Avenue, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013, 800.338.2665 (phone), 212.627.9484 (fax), and will be available at the Walker Art Center Shop, 612.375.7638 (phone), 612.375.7565 (fax). Available in November.
Walker Art Center
November 13, 2005–February 26, 2006
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
March 18–June 18, 2006
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
July 8–October 1, 2006