Visual Arts

Paint It Black

You would think a show full of candy-colored Andy Warhol pictures of Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe and designer shoes would be all froth and fun.

Think again.

The 97 Warhol prints in "Andy Warhol's Dream America," a traveling exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, carry a larger, darker message beneath their sunny pop veneer, and it's this: America is a nightmarish place where consumption has replaced emotion, where materialism has pounded all the meaning from life.

It's enough to make you reach for a bottle of Zoloft.

Organized by the Yellowstone Museum in Billings, Montana, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, "Dream America" brings you the artist's signature series. The early Campbell's soup cans are here, as are the silkscreened Marilyn and Mao portraits. There are some Mick Jagger portraits and drawings of shoes that recall Warhol's days as an advertising illustrator.

Some of his lesser-known work is here, too, like a series called Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, in which Warhol gives Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers and Golda Meir, among others, his signature portrait treatment. Or Flash -- November 22, 1963, in which Warhol depicts in 11 prints the saturation press coverage that surrounded the Kennedy assassination. Warhol shows us news photos of the book depository, JFK, Jackie, Lee Harvey Oswald, the rifle.

Almost all of the works in the exhibition seem to talk about a crumbled culture where we have shopped until we dropped and still haven't found what we're looking for. The bright colors and whimsical style of Warhol's work can feel like a big, wet kiss for popular culture, but there's something amiss in his pictures.

Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe were made after she had killed herself, the ones of Jagger were made after the edgy Rolling Stones front man had become a disco-dancing moron, and the Kennedy assassination series was made after Jackie K. had become Jackie O., selling out the optimism of the Camelot legacy for the mummifying wealth of the toad-like Aristotle Onassis. All of Warhol's sitters are failures, past their prime.

He's not celebrating our culture so much as showing us something is not right in mass-marketed America. Warhol demonstrates how our culture strips meaning from celebrities and events through endless repetition and commercialism, with his pictures as the result. But he seems less like a chronicler of this process than a part of it. Stand in front of Warhol's silkscreens and you feel nothing.

Repeated in relentless series, in an array of color combinations, Warhol's art feels like a meaningless dip into the commercial flotsam that engulfs us. You've seen most of this before, and these prints are just widgets turned out by Warholian assistants at his studio, The Factory. Whether shoes or Golda Meir, all the subjects in his pictures seem like items to be added to the Warhol product line (which raked in $16 million in sales last year, nearly two decades after his death).

It's a chillingly cynical view of the world, one that Warhol articulated in his art, and with career moves like a guest appearance on The Love Boat (a TV cameo we learn of in the time line of his life that sprawls over the walls of one gallery).

At times in this exhibition he escapes the emptiness, most notably in a series of abstract pictures in which Warhol grasps for images that don't have a preassigned meaning. But mostly we get Warhol's bleak vision of the United States as Sold-Out Nation.

"Are we really that hopelessly materialistic?" I wonder as I walk out of the show.

I pass the SMoCA gift shop, stocked to the gills with Andy Warhol soap, paperweights, refrigerator magnets, purses, notepads, Christmas ornaments, switch plate covers, greeting cards, journals and mouse pads. A line of people buying these Warhol tchotchkes snakes through the store, from the cash register to the museum foyer.

I do a quick head count and realize there are more people in the museum store shopping than there are in the museum looking at art.

Somewhere, Andy Warhol is smirking and saying, "See? I told you so."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leanne Potts