New Andy Warhol exhibit at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Art reflects our fascination with American icons

click to enlarge PURE PLEASURE: A screenprint from Andy Warhol's Flowers series (1970). - ©the Andy Warhol Foundation For The Visual Arts/ars, Ny
©the Andy Warhol Foundation For The Visual Arts/ars, Ny
PURE PLEASURE: A screenprint from Andy Warhol's Flowers series (1970).

At the outset of writing anything about Andy Warhol, it seems like a sure bet that nothing new can be said. Nothing, anyway, that hasn't already been better articulated by scholars, biographers and filmmakers, by Warhol himself in his published diaries, or even by Lou Reed and John Cale in their album Songs for Drella (the Warhol nickname that fuses Dracula and Cinderella). His trademarks — the painstaking accounting for even small expenditures, the chronic unhappiness with his physical appearance and consequent plastic surgery, the wig, the Factory — seem less like insights and more like distractions that prevent proximity to the "real Andy."

Warhol himself was famously dismissive of attempts at biographical or psycho-analysis of his work, saying, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

So in response to Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life and Legends, an exhibition of 72 of the superstar pop artist's silkscreen prints from the 1960s, '70s and '80s at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, I'll simply exhort you to go and look. Look and enjoy looking. And here's the important but perhaps odd-sounding part: Enjoy looking as a pleasure unadulterated by the concerns (the illusions?) of deeper meaning. Recognize with glee the eerily innocent wooden mug of Howdy Doody, delight in the playful perversity of "Campbell's Soup I (Cream of Mushroom)," and take childlike pleasure in larger-than-life images of hibiscus flowers, a panda bear or a tree frog in electric hues. Spend a rare afternoon in the context of a gallery or museum without wondering if you really "get it," and just enjoy basking in the presence of a consummate imagemaker.

While you're there, ponder the paradoxical appeal of Warhol's art, at once the product of appropriation (blame that part on Duchamp and his readymades of 50 years prior) and undeniable originality. In retrospect — from the point of view of today's even-more-media-saturated, Internet-driven culture — Warhol's genius might be located in his knack for filtering, or "curating," our favorite sights. Philosopher Arthur Danto, in his profoundly insightful way, has credited Warhol with "identifying the images which unite a group of disparate individuals in a common mind and placing those images before them as the substance of their being." In short, think of Warhol as a kind of mirror.

What viewers experience reflected back through his work is the seduction of American iconography (a seduction that we never seem to tire of fueling). For this exhibit is light on representations of Warhol's more disturbing explorations of irony and morbidity, and heavy on the eye candy. Only one featured image, a reproduction of a newspaper photograph of a Birmingham race riot, hints at the bleaker cultural corners Warhol explored in images of the electric chair, car accidents and photographs of criminals. In this decidedly family-friendly selection of prints, the focus is on pictures that are nice to look at, pictures that inspire the pleasure of recognition (e.g., a portfolio of Flowers, a hot-pink-and-chartreuse Marilyn). In its more elusive moments, that pleasure borders on the sublime, as in the case of two Sunset prints from a series of 632 different colored variations on the theme produced by Warhol. They are spectacular.

As little store as the artist put on biographical determinism, it's hard not to link his gifts as an artist to his quintessentially American rags-to-riches story. Like Warhol's art, the narrative of his transformation from the child of poor immigrants in Pittsburgh to the most famous artist of the 20th century seems, perversely, more a reflection of us (and our attachment to particular ideals) than him. The image in this show that most captures that peculiar contradiction is "The Shadow," a self-portrait from the ten-print Myths portfolio (prominently displayed on a tall wall in the museum's Hazel Hough Wing). Situated to the top and left of the series' other archetypal units (among them, "The Star" — Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, "Uncle Sam," "Superman" and "Mammy"), Warhol's silhouetted profile seems to symbolize his role as an artist in relation to culture: ever present, vigilantly reflective.

Danto suggests tweaking Warhol's self-effacing comment about surface and meaning to reflect the artist's insight into the American soul: "'If you want to know who we were, just look at the surface of Andy's prints... for there we are.'"

To complement the Warhol showcase, the MFA has arranged New Additions: Recent Acquisitions of Modern and Contemporary Prints in an adjacent gallery. Featuring 40 of the latest entrants to the museum's ever-growing collection, the exhibit offers up some famous names (Alexander Calder, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) and iconic images ("LOVE" by Robert Indiana — who, incidentally, starred in Warhol's 1964 film Eat, a silent 45-minute view of the artist eating a mushroom). Examples of Op art and geometric abstraction — especially the vivid "Mandalas Suite" by Brian Halsey — talk back to Warhol's bold forms and color, while more poetic works — say, Leslie Dill's "Twist of the Funnel," a Graphicstudio-produced gem in which a ghostly hand hovers over a verse about rebirth — solicit a different kind of attention. More to enjoy.

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