Is Warhol's art art yet?

March 26, 1997|By Bennard B. Perlman

A HALF-CENTURY ago when Abstract Expressionism captivated the art world, it was estimated that only 10 percent of the public understood and appreciated it. Then along came Pop Art, which replaced the drips, dribbles and brazen bravura with carefully painted comic strips and dollar bills and sculptures of hamburgers.

Pop became immediately popular with the public because its subject matter was recognizable. It was at once anti-elitist and non-intellectual. As Andy Warhol put it, ''Pop Art is for everyone.''

Of all the practitioners of Pop, Warhol came to epitomize the new style. Over the years he produced an unending procession of icons, from silk-screen prints of soup cans and Coke bottles to Brillo boxes and images of Marilyn Monroe. Yet today it is the Abstract Expressionists -- Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning among them -- whose legacy is better understood in relation to the evolution of art, while the work of Andy Warhol is more often than not characterized simply as commercial art rather than art.

When Warhol died 10 years ago it appeared that his star could never fall. In 1989 he had been the subject of a mega-blockbuster at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and when a museum devoted solely to his work opened in Pittsburgh in 1994, it was heralded as the second-largest single-artist museum in the world, bested only by the one devoted to Picasso in Paris.

So why has the public failed to comprehend and appreciate Warhol's art as something more than advertisements for consumer products?

Passion for commercial art

Andy Warhol's passion for commercial art as art began in the fall of 1947, just at the start of his junior year as a pictorial-design major at Carnegie Tech. Until then his own illustrations had consisted of theoretical classroom assignments, but at that time an exhibition of magazine art opened at the Carnegie Museum a few blocks from campus.

Warhol visited the show and was able to study examples of advertising art by well-known professionals, such as J.C. Leyendecker, who had created movie-star images through ads for Chesterfield cigarettes, Interwoven socks and Arrow shirt collars that resembled the Great Gatsby look.

Not lost on Andy was the fact that this collection of magazine ads occupied galleries adjacent to the museum's ''Painting in the United States'' annual show. Perhaps for the first time, he realized that commercial and fine art could be thought of as equals.

This point was emphasized when the museum's director, Homer Saint-Gaudens, was quoted in a newspaper as saying: ''We are apt to make too much of a distinction between commercial art and fine art. When a commercial artist is good he becomes a fine artist.'' One became aware that many of the country's leading painters began their careers as illustrators, including Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and John Sloan.

Warhol is said to have begun stenciling dollar bills in 1961 at the suggestion of an art dealer who asked him what was the most important thing in his life. Andy reportedly replied ''Money'' and she advised: ''Well, then, paint it!'' He started producing Campbell soup cans about the same time, eventually recalling: ''I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess; the same thing over and over again.''

Portrait in a pocket

Maybe so, but the germ of the idea for both series began more than a dozen years earlier. One of his college art professors pointed out that people pause to view a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in a museum, but no one bothers to study the engraving of the same portrait on the face of a dollar bill that we carry around with us.

Similarly, the Campbell soup can label was pointed out in his art class as containing some of the same properties as a portrait by Rembrandt: The subject, as viewed against the background, usually contains what is known as a reversal, a light wall behind the sitter's dark hair and arm in shadow, then dark tones against the subject's highlighted face and shoulders. Similarly, the soup can contains the word ''Campbell's'' in white against a red background on the top portion, and red wording surrounded by white on the bottom.

But does the public notice this? No, only the name of the particular soup being searched out along a row of labels.

At one point Warhol produced individual portraits of 32 soup cans, each emblazoned with the name of a different soup. They are usually exhibited in four rows of eight each, simulating a supermarket display. Here the mass-production of the marketplace is brought into the museum.

Andy also saw a tradition of democracy in all of this, having once pointed out that ''the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. . . . You know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. . . . No amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.''

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