Always About Andy

Andy Warhol's art encapsulated the presumed banality of late twentieth-century American culture. He also exemplified the aesthetic ideal of the dandy: Life and work became one. Self-indulgent and reticent, Warhol, toward the end of his life, constructed for himself a quasi-autistic persona. Either praised or vilified, with Andy there was no middle ground. His iconography -- taken from TV, comics, and other forms of advertising -- was impersonal, but it had overwhelming immediacy.

Almost thirteen years after his death, one of Warhol's obsessions still attracts us: portraiture. About Face: Andy Warhol Portraits is, well, about façade and appearance. The first hint as one enters the exhibition at Miami Art Museum is on the white wall at the steps, filled with manifold large-font Warhol quotables -- and Andy was much quoted. Let's keep in mind, though, Andy Warhol didn't mean a lot of what he said.

"About Face" takes a chronological approach. We see Cocteau-like semidecorative portrait drawings from the mid-1950s, such as James Dean, or Male Portraits. The lines are softly undulated, homoerotic, and kind of neoclassical. These pieces belong to the period when Warhol worked as a thriving commercial illustrator for Vogue, Glamour, and McCall's. Some of the pieces are amusingly artificial. An example is Zsa-Zsa Gabor: a Rococo-style collage of a high-heel golden shoe, named after the Hungarian-born actress.

The best pieces in the show are from Warhol's silk-screening period, from 1962 to 1975. This era is without a doubt Warhol's greatest. The 4 Marilyns, the Early Colored Liz, Early Colored Jackie, and the potent 10 Maos are important works. More than merely being repetitive and less than deliberately profound, these creations from Warhol's mind seem puzzling, even meaningless, but they are challenging.

Warhol's silk-screening was a mechanical process, devoid of traditional deliberation (in other words his procedure did not include sketches, sittings, et cetera). The printlike reproduction of the product raises questions of authenticity and copyright and has been much debated in art circles. According to Warhol his art worked this way: "You pick a photograph, transfer it onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the glue. That way you get the same image slightly different each time. It was all so simple -- quick and chancy." It's no wonder that after his Campbell's soup cans exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1962, a mad gallery owner stacked 32 soup cans in his display window, with a sign reading: "Get the real thing for 29 cents a can."

Because of his commercial background during his early years in New York, Warhol understood that in the realm of the media, people become commodified. In essence anything is public property. So he turned celebrities into fetishized symbols and wore them out through repetition. Within this context one can accept that a soup can's image is not much different from that of a celebrity. Warhol used a single image in his first Campbell's soup pieces, but soon after, he placed these paintings alongside one another to achieve the well-known regimental effect. This is how pieces such as 32 Campbell's Soup Cans and 210 Coca-Cola Bottles were born. (None of these works are exhibited at "About Face," a show about portraiture.) But after developing this ready-made process, Warhol began turning out multiple portraits of film stars.

The celebrity series produced by Warhol points ahead of his time to the minimalism to come. He would characterize it this way: "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel." In contemplating these images, it's as though their humanity is depleted. Yet something seems to linger behind the appearances. Marilyn, Jackie, Liz: All lived tragic lives. Warhol himself had a penchant for tragedy with forceful necrophiliac imagery, especially in his 5 Death 17 Times in Black and White; his red-and-black Atomic Bomb, where the bottom chessboard row is almost black; and the ominous Electric Chair, with its sadomasochistic dangling restraining straps.

Miami Art Museum's "About Face" also features three of Warhol's films from 1964: Eat, Blow Job, and Mario Banana. Warhol's films were an extension of his aesthetics of reiteration. His cinema is strictly passive. "Just turn the camera on ... and leave it running until it runs out of film," was his mode of operation. But there is a conceptual spin behind this cinéma vérité. Warhol invites us to see what he doesn't do. Blow Job is a black-and-white 40-minute closeup on the face of a man receiving fellatio (even today the complete bracketing of this man's source of pleasure remains fresh). This quasi documentary is minimalist and lengthy. By slowing down the speed from 24 to 16 frames per second (the standard silent speed), Warhol delays the viewer's perception of an already monotonous action. It produces, or induces, a kind of catatonic hyperreality.

Yet Blow Job is short in comparison with the six-hour Sleep (Warhol's first important feature). In it we watch poet John Giorno doing just that -- sleeping. The economy of motion works very much like a still life. Warhol's cinema is far-out, real, and unassuming. At the time Warhol's films proved to be influential: In 1971 in Germany, Warhol's Trash outgrossed Easy Rider. Bernardo Bertolucci admitted he took the idea for the last scene in Last Tango in Paris from Warhol's Blue Movie.

Warhol's Factory (his dwelling, studio, office, club, and performance space) was a multimedia spectacle, and "About Face" tries to take us along this course. You walk into a big room -- part interactive, part entertaining. You can browse through some books on Warhol, watch snippets of his TV shows on a little monitor, fill out some teen-magazine-type bland questionnaires, or go inside a booth to take a photo. Somewhat in the spirit of Warhol, though a bit undeveloped and even tame. More interactive would have been to paint the room silver, add some strobe lights, include a true TV camera to play with, and provide a station with earphones playing music by the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Ziggy Stardust.

The last two rooms in "About Face" are plastered with purple and off-white, top-to-bottom rows of Warhols (after his 1978 self-portrait). But these are the walls on which other paintings from the late 1970s hang. The effect mimics Warhol's own gesture at his 1971 show at the Whitney Museum, when he papered the walls of his exhibition with images of cows' heads in trippy colors. In the context of "About Face," a show about, and not by Warhol, this betrays the artist's personal license to create a ludicrous atmosphere (as he did) at a time when minimalism seemed to render the art of painting obsolete. Arguably, because of its boasting, this may count as Warholian. Instead of creating Warhol's seductively narcotic effect, however, this superimposition remains obtrusive at the price of self-importance.

Throughout the 1980s Warhol's art faded. He kept repeating the same formulas of his earlier period. So good was Warhol at the art of self-creation that he became a sort of a character of his own movies. He always dared us to ponder what kind of person he was behind the mask. I couldn't stop thinking about the dramatic drag-queen Polaroid photos of the early 1980s. They reveal a truer Andy, minus the attitude: He looks vulnerable, baffled, and totally exposed. Warhol's life seemed to summarize Sartre's existential motto that one is what one is not.

People have strong feelings about Andy Warhol, good and bad. But MAM's exhibit succeeds in mimicking Warhol's art: It's fun and accessible.

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Alfredo Triff