Both the artist's interest in celebrity and his own eventual fame form a loose theme in "Warhol: Portraits," now in its third month at the Phoenix Art Museum. The traveling exhibition, which debuted in 2010 at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, features nearly 200 works from Warhol's childhood and on into the '80s. It is focused on recognizable faces of pop singers, actors, and royalty but also offers childhood sketches, advertising, and fashion designs Warhol made in the '50s, as well as photo-booth portraits from the '60s. Warhol's drawings, videos, paintings, and photographs are joined by his Silver Clouds, an installation of reflective air- and helium-filled metallic balloons.
Those childhood drawings and artifacts illustrate the artist's early fascination with celebrity and the human form: a sketch of a Joan Crawford skin care ad from 1962; an autographed photograph of Shirley Temple mailed to young Warhol in 1941; a simple and striking drawing of actress Geraldine Page as she appeared on stage in The Immortalist in 1954.
Even for those not interested in Warhol, it's worth the price of admission to ponder these boyhood sketches, to consider his youthful commitment to forthcoming concepts like the male gaze and celebrity obsession. These graphite drawings on Scotch Tape-stained sheets of bond paper reveal the sincerity of Warhol's work and the truth behind his craftsmanship. Warhol's childhood drawings (which in this collection include one of the famed "boy with finger in nose" sketches) go a long way toward refuting the notion that he thought art was a joke, or that he used art and the art world exclusively to achieve fame. It's clear that Warhol chose an artist's path from childhood.
Presumably, most attending this exhibit don't care about such things. The exhibit text strains to make a point about Warhol's prescience, with references to the selfie and to social media's obsession with self-promotion, both models used by Warhol decades ago. But the overall effect here is one of late-to-the-party irrelevance. Even if we haven't seen these particular portraits before (and many of us have seen most of them), Warhol's high-color silk screen portraits are iconic to the point of cliché. A roomful of them that isn't making a stronger statement (about, for example, how they shaped or influenced celebrity culture) can appear pointless.
Fortunately, "Portraits" offers enough seldom-seen work to provide some huzzahs: episodes of Warhol's 1985 MTV show, Fifteen Minutes, screening on a loop; a trio of early paintings of Jacqueline Onassis from 1964; a Mark Leibovitz diptych. Those studies of Jackie depict the recently widowed first lady in acrylic and silk screen ink on linen and are refreshing additions to a sea of Grace Jones and Prince portraits.
An early screen print of Warren Beatty, rich with texture and devoid of color, gives us a glimpse into the developing portraiture technique Warhol would make famous. And for those of us angling for something other than a big colorful painting of Queen Elizabeth II, there's real wow appeal in seeing Two Youngsters up close and in person. This stunning 1950s ink and oil on canvas predates the artist's iconic late-career, color-drenched portraits, its blocks of yellow, orange, and green hinting at things to come.
Ultimately, those portraits are the point of any Warhol exhibit. Warhol's faces reflect back both content and context, using the same principles (who's "hot," and why) that inform what we now call "trending." But today's stale shout-outs to Warhol's prescience and to his crafting of pop culture are inadequate to describe the impact of the silk-screened, assembly-line Factory paintings themselves. Their simple clarity overcomes the cold, often-shadowed surfaces of the canvases, giving the impression that we're seeing the people behind their own recognizable faces (ironically, the inverse of what Warhol was most often accused of: commoditizing and commenting on these superstars as products, not people).
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Curator Jerry Smith's choices are designed to add something new to familiar iconography and to emulate Warholian ideas of repeated and overlapped imagery. But the effect of stacking Warhol portraits results in graphic overkill. In an installation that jams together portraits of singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka, pop star Grace Jones, and actor Sylvester Stallone, much of the paintings' color and composition are lost to the overall effect. Eighties-inspired wall colors of canary yellow, pink, and navy are perfect for New Wave-era superstars but are an incongruent backdrop for celebrities who were popular in the '60s or '70s.
The presentation, neither chronological nor representational, is often disjointed and lacks a natural flow. An uncluttered installation of Warhol's 1963 films Sleep, Kiss, and Eat might have been improved by the inclusion of one of the unseen portraits of Jonas Mekas, who inspired Warhol to attempt filmmaking. (In Smith's defense, this is a traveling exhibit, and work was selected on the Pittsburgh end. Who wants to look at Jonas Mekas when they can gaze upon fitness-craze-era Jane Fonda?)
The effect is both frustrating and mysteriously soothing. Familiar faces, presented in Warhol's now widely familiar style, draw us in. But for anyone who's not just discovering this artist, there's little depth. Ultimately, "Portraits" is as cheerful and purposeful as any Internet slideshow of the artist's work. As Warhol himself might have pointed out, late-to-the-party irrelevance may be precisely the point.
"Warhol: Portraits" is on display through Sunday, June 21, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave. Call 602-257-1880 or visit www.phxart.org for more information.