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Saturday, September 24, 2005

A broken culture of consumerism

Campbell Soup cans, Andy Warhol at MOMA

The Down Side of Pop
At the Corcoran Gallery, Andy Warhol's Comment On a Sold-Out Society

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2005; Page C01

Some museum exhibitions put up disclaimers about sex. Others warn about violence in their art. The impressive Andy Warhol show that opens today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art ought to begin with a big sign that reads something like this: "The following exhibition may cause depression or anxiety in visitors -- viewer discretion advised."

For all the bubble gum colors and crisp commercial graphics in much of Warhol's art, its larger vision is profoundly grim. It's that austere underpinning to the Warhol glitz that gives this exhibition so much weight and depth.

People talk about Warhol's art as ironic, or cynical or maybe as satirical -- all of which implies a certain good humor, or at least a distance from the things it talks about. I think his project goes much further than that. I think there's profound, considered despair in it. Taken as a whole, Warhol's art seems to portray a world so thoroughly sold out that there's no hope for it.

"Warhol Legacy" was chosen from works in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, filled out with a few loans. Most of his signature series are represented. The early Campbell soup cans are there, along with a stack of his giant Brillo boxes. There are his trademark silk-screen paintings of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie and Warhol himself. A gallery titled "Death and Disaster" shows Warhol riffing on news photos of suicides, car crashes, the electric chair and botulism-laden cans of tuna. Other galleries concentrate on fascinating works -- some of Warhol's best -- that may not be well known to the general public: his grim little Polaroids of guns and knives; his "abstract" images derived from shadows, Rorschach blots and camouflage; his gripping "Screen Tests," in which one subject after another stares into a movie camera's lens for four long, uneventful minutes.

And almost all of the more than 150 works in the exhibition seem to point to a culture of consumption that, in one way or another, has broken down.

As art historian Thomas Crow pointed out in a famous article, the "Pop" side of Warhol's art, which can feel like a celebration of American consumerism, is more than counterbalanced by a tragic side. There are the crashes and suicides and executions, even that lethal tuna, that suggest not everything is right in big-box America.

Even Warhol's most famous celebrity images aren't so much celebrations of Hollywood values as records of their failure. Warhol's first Marilyns were painted right after her breakdown and suicide. His Liz Taylors were made after her very public illness and many scandalous affairs, and they don't exactly show her at her best. Every one of the Warhol Jackie pictures that render the first lady in her stylish heyday, when she was a symbol of American optimism and energy, was painted after her husband had been gunned down.

posted by Steve @ 10:26:00 AM

10:26:00 AM

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