Pop goes the Dalí Museum

St. Petersburg’s world-famous museum shifts the spotlight to Andy Warhol.

click to enlarge Pop goes the Dalí Museum - © 2014 The Andy Warhol Museum
© 2014 The Andy Warhol Museum
Pop goes the Dalí Museum

Last week St. Petersburg’s new mayor, Rick Kriseman, sat down in front of a video camera — cleverly hidden inside a vintage Bolex 16mm film camera body — against a backdrop of silver wallpaper at the Dalí Museum to create a Warholian screen test for an audience of chuckling journalists.

This after a welcome and ribbon cutting for the exhibition Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. during which the mayor thanked the Dalí for being a major reason why The New York Times recently named St. Pete one of 52 “places to go” in 2014. Given that the ‘Burg seems to be enjoying a certain 15 minutes of fame, it’s apropos that the Dalí has just opened its first monographic exhibition of an artist who is not Dalí but possesses stature — and perhaps also, outrageousness — on par with the Catalan surrealist, an ambition articulated when the museum expanded into its new building three years ago. In Warhol’s obsessive pop and self-portraiture, there’s apt foil for Dalí’s dreams and megalomania, something viewers can consider over a selection of more than 150 Warhol works including paintings, drawings, photographs, experimental films and television episodes on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.  

The exhibition’s themes are artfully chosen, though some works on view — including the 54-minute “Kiss” (1963), a black-and-white film montage of same and opposite sex lip-locks — have something to say about other major threads in Warhol’s art, such as sex. But between art, fame and death, the exhibition covers a lot of ground, highlighting how Warhol pioneered the appropriation of mass media imagery and the use of commercial image-making processes in fine art through specific fascinations with art and pop culture society in New York during the 1960s through ’80s and the larger spectacle and tragedy of American culture represented by Marilyn Monroe (who became a subject of Warhol’s work after her demise), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (in the wake of JFK’s assassination) and the electric chair — each represented in the exhibition. 

“Warhol brought us into a new intimacy with our own world,” explained the Dalí’s executive director, Hank Hine, during the exhibition preview. 

The “art” of the exhibition title doesn’t only refer to Warhol’s output, but also the way in which art and artists became subjects of his work. Many of the selected drawings, polaroid photographs, films and videos offer portraits of other artists of Warhol’s time, from Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg to Julian Schnabel and Cindy Sherman. Niki de Saint Phalle, the French painter-sculptor (born in 1930) whose 1961 Paris exhibition Fire At Will invited viewers to use a .22 gauge rifle to shoot plaster canvases embedded with bags of paint, is captured at the height of her beauty in a 1964 screen test, one of more than 500 three-minute black-and-white films Warhol made with visitors to his Factory studio. (Visitors can make a present-day version in an interactive area.) Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat — those darlings of the 1980s intersection of high art and graffiti in New York, whose careers Warhol promoted — crop up in polaroids, photographs and video episodes of Andy Warhol’s T.V., the public access television show Warhol created in 1983 as a complement to his Interview magazine. Even Dalí makes appearances in photographs of his first meeting with Warhol, at New York’s St. Regis Hotel in 1964, and in a later screen test filmed at the Factory.

These portraits serve to flesh out one of Warhol’s most interesting legacies: having inspired philosopher Arthur Danto to articulate, while puzzling through how Warhol’s Brillo Boxes could qualify as art (theoretically, since they were clearly salable), his concept of the “artworld.” Commonplace today, the term was proposed by Danto as a way of describing an atmosphere of ideas about what art is that permeates the community around art and enables certain, sometimes utterly bewildering (from a non-artworld viewpoint) objects to have immense value, both in terms of meaning and marketability. Within this climate of theories, artists advance new thoughts about what art can be through objects and practices that, if assimilated into the artworld, in turn rewrite the history of art by enriching the context through which we look back at past works. 

While the Dalí exhibition lacks a Brillo Box, it includes an equivalent — five screen printed plywood replicas of Heinz ketchup cardboard boxes — that are just as good an illustration of why Danto picked Warhol as one of the contemporary artists, circa 1964, whose radical objects were rapidly expanding the field of art. Warhol’s oxidation paintings, made by having friends and studio assistants urinate on canvases coated with copper pigment, of which there are four small examples at the Dalí, are another; art historian Rosalind Krauss saw them as an extension of Jackson Pollock’s drip painting technique into the realm of bodily excretions. And so is the genre-busting film, Sleep (1963), a five hour and 20-minute film of Warhol’s friend John Giorno literally sleeping. (Last November, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles offered visitors a midnight “sleepover” screening of the film. Hint, hint, Dalí Museum.)

In retrospect, much of Warhol’s genius stems not only from having transported the imagery of everyday media — from Campbell’s soup can labels to a portrait of Marilyn — into the rarified atmosphere of the artworld, but in recognizing and capturing the role of individual personalities in that world and making them — as well as himself, in countless self-portraits — the subjects of his art. Not mere narcissism, this emphasis on the social underpinnings of the artworld is one of Warhol’s original contributions to art and why his presence as a person as well as a body of work lives on so vibrantly.   

Or perhaps, as Warhol explains to Basquiat in an episode of Andy Warhol T.V., his arm slung companionably around the younger artist, “people don’t die — they just go for a walk.”

Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality runs through April 27 at the Salvador Dalí Museum, One Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg, 727-823-3767 thedali.org

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