Pop artist Andy Warhol died in 1987, but he's making his presence felt around the nation's capital these days. He's featured in an art fair, in restaurants, in galleries and in two major museums. The Hirschhorn Museum is exhibiting silkscreens and paintings Warhol did — of photographs of shadows. And the National Gallery of Art has its first one-man Warhol show, Headlines, focused on a series of paintings he made of Page One tabloid headlines.
Not just canvases. There are clips from movies he made, there's audio from an LP, and there's the man himself, on a TV screen in one gallery, co-hosting the 1983 cable show Andy Warhol's TV. In his trademark white fright wig and a blue turtleneck, Warhol stares at the camera, face immobile even when his lips move. Uneasy. Enigmatic. Shy, but courting fame — and presenting the famous in his art. Headline-makers, the point of this show.
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That 1985 New York Post headline was about photos Playboy ran of Madonna, clad in nothing more than attitude. She didn't care, but the public did. Readers snatched up these tabloids for headlines like that. And Andy Warhol turned them into paintings. He had a point, according to Headlines curator Molly Donovan. For Warhol, the media — its impact, how it operated — was a preoccupation.
"I think Warhol was trying to get the consumers of the news to think about the truth in the news overall," Donovan says. "The news is a product that we buy, as consumers."
And Warhol was fascinated by consumerism — he started off as a commercial artist, making illustrations designed to sell products. Donovan says that throughout his life, certain other themes obsessed Warhol — themes that were natural fodder for headlines. Death. Disaster.
"Tragedy, celebrity — celebrity babies was a subset of celebrity that he was fascinated with," Donovan says.
In fact the very first headline painting he sold — in 1962 — was about a celebrity baby.
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Page One of the New York Post on Friday, Nov. 3, 1961, announced the birth of a son to Princess Margaret of England — the present Queen Elizabeth's younger sister. Warhol painted what looks to be an exact replica of the tabloid headline.
"But he cropped information out of this. He edited it," Donovan explains. "And in so doing, in cutting out information, he's getting us to really look more carefully."
Here's how Warhol worked. He traced the tabloid image onto a canvas, using an opaque projector.
"Remember those from school?" Donovan says. "A light is shone on a mirror, and it projects the image onto the wall and enlarges it."
So how is that artistic?
"It's about the selectivity of the artist," Donovan says. "He's choosing from among volumes of newspapers he read daily."
And Warhol was trying to get us to see ourselves in these headlines. He loved the name of the New York Daily Mirror — felt it reflected its readers in the news it published, the news we consumed. We, too, have babies. And at least in that, we commoners are just like royalty.
"Elevating headlines to the status of art" — one critic observed. Warhol collected and saved hoards of tabloids. Warhol Museum archivist Matt Wrbican says the painter was a pack rat. He filled cartons with all kinds of "stuff" — a cultural historian gathering evidence of the world around him.
"He was taking these objects that were common everyday objects and drawing our attention to them," Wrbican says. "By putting them onto canvas and making them much larger — in some cases 7 feet tall — and making them the icons that they are."
Headlines. Soup cans. Movie stars. But is all that really the stuff of art? With Warhol, is there a there there?
"Look deeper. Look below the surface," Donovan says. "His taunt to us — that we simply need to look no further than the surface — is simply a challenge. Underneath every surface there's something, he's telling us."