Warhol's portraits were of cynicism

March 07, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

One can easily admire the exhibit of Andy Warhol's portraits at the University of Maryland, College Park, because it shows so much of what Warhol's art was all about. But what it shows is a Warholian world view that one can't admire at all.

The show brings together about 50 portraits the artist produced of well-known figures in several fields, including entertainment, sports, art (including himself), eminent Jews of the 20th century, and American myths, plus Campbell's soup cans.

Typically, a Warhol portrait comes from a pre-existing photographic image (often taken by himself), enlarged and transferred to canvas or paper with Warhol's addition of areas of color and sometimes drawn lines.

The Warhol images that result from this method do not bring the viewer closer to his subjects or offer any new insights into them. On the contrary, they look more distanced, more veiled by the layering of color, more impersonal and more interchangeable.

Whether it's Marilyn Monroe's face in a series of 10 varicolored images or Jacqueline Kennedy riding with her husband in the Dallas motorcade, or Lee Harvey Oswald after the shooting, or Gertrude Stein's Mount Rushmore-like visage, Warhol's poster-like portraits do their best to strip people of human individuality, character and values and reduce their importance to their common status as celebrities.

It's appropriate that the show begins with 10 Campbell's soup cans and ends with 10 Marilyns, because Warhol's art eliminates all distinctions between them. They're important only because they're instantly recognizable images, neither is more important than the other, and both are more important than the viewer, whose image isn't instantly recognizable.

The exhibit includes several texts quoting Warhol, one of which says, "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." He lied. Beneath Warhol's deadpan images of himself and others lay a cynical view of American civilization nowhere better shown than in his "Myth Series."

The 10 people Warhol chose as having achieved mythical status in America are Santa Claus, Superman, Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, Howdy Doody, Uncle Sam, Mammy (Aunt Jemima), Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz" and himself as the detective "The Shadow."

A myth, says the dictionary, is "a real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions." So the myths that Warhol gives us include a symbol of rampant materialism, a vampire, a traitor, a racial stereotype and a wicked witch who flies around persecuting a child and her dog.

If Warhol hadn't revealed his cynicism so clearly elsewhere, one might take this series as tongue-in-cheek. But Warhol, ever the true cynic, makes these images as glamorous as possible, celebrating the perversion of cultural ideals he thought America represented.

There are those who think Warhol, with images like these from the 1960s to the 1980s, brilliantly captured the spirit of his time in America. But to me, the America of the Vietnam-Watergate period was a society desperately trying to preserve national ideals threatened by people in high places. Warhol's art didn't capture the angst that the country went through but merely his own jaded view of the country.

That's no reason not to see this show, though. It's well-thought-out, well-put-together and reveals a great deal about an artist who, for better or worse, is still a force to reckon with in American art.

'Reframing Andy Warhol'

Where: Art-Sociology Building on Campus Drive, University of Maryland, College Park

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (until 9 p.m. Thursdays), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; through April 18

Admission: (Suggested donation) $3; $1 students

Information: 301-405-2763

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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