“In the future,” Andy Warhol once famously said, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Or maybe he said it. The source of that oft-quoted quote has been disputed in recent years.
Andy, even though your fame grew for four decades, you were so disco ball-cool and enigmatic, sometimes it feels like we hardly knew ye.
Now, Atlantans have the opportunity to know Warhol like never before, as the High Museum of Art presents the exhaustive exhibition “Andy Warhol: Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation.”
Claimed by Portland, Oregon, collector Schnitzer to be the “largest Warhol exhibition ever,” it includes more than 250 prints and ephemera by the prolific, pasty, shock wig-wearing trendsetter. Warhol died in 1987, but not before anticipating elements of the celebrity-obsessed America that we inhabit today.
So in the spirit of Warhol’s predicted 15 minutes of fame, here are 15 things you can learn in the exhibition that fills the High’s Cousins Galleries.
1. Andy Warhol had a heart. Really.
When “Andy Warhol” debuted at the Portland Art Museum last October, Richard H. Axsom, a contributor to the exhibition catalog, asserted about Warhol’s print oeuvre: “Under-appreciated is its profound humanity, often obscured by the glamour and glitz of Warhol’s public persona. For an artist known for his superficiality, Warhol was among the least superficial artists of his time.”
Seems a bold statement about one known for his detachment and thousand-mile stares.
Yet Michael Rooks, the High Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, heartily concurs. He points to two of the artist’s most celebrated print series, “Jacqueline Kennedy” (1965) and “Marilyn Monroe” (1967), as being saturated with a sense of the tragic.
“These are not just portraits, but are tributes,” Rooks said, “They’re very solemn works.”
2. He changed printmaking forever.
Warhol began work as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s and firmly embraced the silkscreen process that had been viewed as a commercial format before his rocket launch in the fine art realm. He elevated silkscreens to high art, processing many aspects of American life in the second half of the 20th century through continual experimentation and repetition, in the process blurring the lines between original and reproduction.
3. He was an acute social observer.
Born Andy Warhola in 1928 to a family of Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh’s working-class suburbs, he suffered early health issues, including a bout of rheumatic fever that caused significant pigment loss. Pale and skinny, he was ridiculed about his appearance.
The shy and socially awkward young artist spent much time at home with his mother, experiencing the world through the filter of television, comics, radio and tabloid movie magazines. Later, being out prior to gay liberation added to his challenges.
“That all contributes to this picture of someone who was a very profoundly vulnerable human being responding to a rapidly changing world around him, anticipating our obsession and addiction with manipulating and mediating images,” Rooks said.
4. His inspiration cut deeper than it appeared.
There are different notions of what inspired Warhol’s unusually lyrical “Sunset” screenprint series, an epic edition of 632 prints depicting a sunset in different color variations.
Axsom, senior curator at the Madison (Wisc.) Museum of Contemporary Art, theorizes that behind the play of unique, banded color variations lurks dark subject matter. He believes the prints were inspired by a similar image of the Operation Dominic Sunset atomic bomb test over the South Pacific in 1962.
“Here you have sofa art masquerading as social commentary,” Axsom said. “What you see is not what you really get. Or what you see is the opposite of what you think you’re going to get.”
Yet Revolver, a Los Angeles gallery devoted solely to Warhol, has a simpler explanation: The prints were based on sunsets Warhol shot for his never-completed film “Sunset.”
5. He was obsessed with death.
His “Death and Disaster” series, well represented at the High, is read as a statement on how the gratuitous repetition of graphic imagery in the news media results in viewer desensitization.
It includes the silkscreen portfolio “Electric Chair,” depicting an empty execution chamber. The bright, saturated colors in repeated variations aside, Rooks finds the shadow cast by the chair most chilling. He pointed out that the source photograph upon which the image is based captures the room at Sing Sing Prison where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 following their espionage conviction during World War II.
6. The civil rights movement moved him.
Though magnetically drawn to politically charged images such as Chairman Mao and the electric chair, Warhol’s political point of view could be elusive. So make what you will of a lesser-known print in which he riffed on the civil rights movement.
In “Birmingham Race Riot” from the 1964 “Ten Works by Ten Painters” portfolio, an intersection of abstract and Pop artists, Warhol appropriated a 1963 Life magazine photograph by Charles Moore, capturing an attack on a civil rights demonstrator in Birmingham.
7. Mao will take a bow.
Warhol’s interest in Mao Zedong was sparked when, in 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to travel to the People’s Republic of China. The Warhol screenprints found him riffing on a portrait from Mao’s book of quotations distributed across China starting in the mid-’60s. The High will present the entire “Mao” portfolio against wallpaper featuring Mao’s repeated image that the artist created for a 1974 Paris exhibit.
8. Jimmy Carter got the Warhol treatment.
A steady stream of public figures sought to be depicted in Warhol’s trademark style in the last decade of his life.
The Democratic National Committee commissioned the Carter print included in “Andy Warhol” for a poster promoting the Georgian’s 1976 presidential campaign. The hope was the artist’s iconic status would help Carter connect with the younger electorate.
9. Warhol designed iconic album covers.
Visually speaking, he was nothing short of a hit-maker, responsible for two of the most renown album covers in the history of rock, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers.”
The High offers a listening station with four iPads loaded with a dozen cuts revealing the eclectic musical tastes of this “purveyor of cool.”
10. Tin foil was an obsession.
Warhol occupied the first of three studio spaces he called the Factory in East Midtown Manhattan in 1963, and it attracted swarms of glitterati, who sparkled against walls covered in foil and floors and windows sprayed with silver paint, decorated by photographer-lighting designer Billy Name. A gallery in the High show will sport foil-clad walls to which Atlanta artists have added graffiti.
11. Plenty of soup for you!
Warhol put the pop in the nascent Pop art movement when he exhibited paintings of Campbell’s soup cans in a 1962 Los Angeles gallery exhibit, lining them up on shelving like cans in a grocery store, an early salute to what the High exhibit terms “the democratic appeal of American consumerism.”
Sure to be a crowd-pleaser, “Andy Warhol” includes screenprints of Campbell’s soup in a variety of flavors.
12. Warhol birthed the museum gift shop era.
Among the profusion of prints in “Andy Warhol” is a 1966 screenprinted shopping bag featuring a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can. Warhol produced these to market his exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Also displayed: the 1965 screenprinted “Souper Dress,” a promotional item created in partnership with Campbell’s Soup, available by mail order for $1 and two Campbell’s labels.
13. Warhol had a homoerotic side.
An early piece in this chronological exhibit is “Studies for a Boy Book,” a print that includes drawings of naked men at play, resting and, well, having sex. Still, that’s tame compared to the 1978 “Sex Parts” series, which will be featured in a wedge-shaped side gallery set off with what might be termed a “Parental Guidance” sign.
“We wanted to remain true to the spirit of who he was,” Rooks said.
14. Warhol’s final bow
“Andy Warhol” includes one of the artist’s final works before his death in 1987, “Moonwalk.” The screenprint was inspired by another major moment in the last half of the 20th century, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr.’s first-time stroll on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, as photographed by Neil Armstrong. Warhol intended it to be part of a more expansive series on the history of TV, before complications from gall bladder surgery brought his remarkable life to an end at age 58.
15. As big as “Andy Warhol” is, there’s much more.
The 250-work exhibit gives “a really comprehensive view of this artist’s entire career,” Rooks said. “But he made over 1,700 prints during his lifetime, so it’s a fraction of his printmaking output.”