by KATE BENNETT | October 27, 2011 | Lifestyle
Andy Warhol and “Baby” Jane Holzer, seeking inspiration
|From 1977, Gardner Cowles|
|A sampling from Warhol: Headlines, Tunafish Disaster, 1963|
“Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” This question, however rhetorical, is one of artist Andy Warhol’s most memorable queries about the disconnect between how we view life and how life actually unfolds. Undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Warhol, whose fascination with popular culture bordered on the obsessive, was, more than anything, an observer. “He tracked patterns in society and in the media and in consumer culture, and he did so from very early on,” says Molly Donovan, the associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art. “He was so prescient.” Donovan would know: She has spent the past four years researching and developing Warhol: Headlines, a remarkable exhibition featuring 80 works by Warhol and on exhibit at the National Gallery through January 2.
A first-of-its-kind look at a cross-section of Warhol’s fascination with headlines, the exhibit explores—via film, photography, paintings, drawing, and prints—the artist’s extreme preoccupation with the media. “The inspiration for the show came from A Boy for Meg,” says Donovan of the tabloidesque painting that is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, and which was the first “headline” painting to leave the Warhol studio when it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine in 1962. “That painting launched the entire show, really. It was a research into the context of that work and how many others there were.” What Donovan did not fully know at the time, however, was just how deep and lengthy a project this exploration would turn out to be. “His headline works started very early in his career and stuck with him through the end. He was constantly at it.”
For the first time since Warhol died in 1987, of complications from gallbladder surgery, the full breadth and scope of his headline fixation comes to light. His particular focus, and the one reflected in the exhibition, often was the tabloid media. “It pulled together all of this subject matter that he was interested in: celebrity narrative, gossip, politics, disaster, tragedy,” Donovan explains. “For him the tabloid news was just another consumer commodity—similar to the way the Campbell’s soup cans resonated with him.” While perhaps not as well known as the Campbell’s series, nor the celebrity Polaroids-cum-portraits, the headlines series is just as insightful. Whether in the way he cropped a page, or in the repetition of a single sentence, or the reversing of headline and text copy, Warhol was saying something about the modern world and how people fit into it. “The medium of these works, or the container of the message, if you will, is so interesting,” says Donovan. “We have to look at how technology changed the definition of the headline.”
At first they were drawn by hand on paper, copied and reimagined from the front pages of the New York Post or the Daily News; by the end of his life, the series of headlines progressed into televised productions with Andy Warhol’s TV and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes on MTV. “He was constantly working. When he walked down the street, he was working. He was taking photographs of everything he saw, everything that he could.” For Donovan, calculating the inner workings of Warhol’s process was a crucial part of the exhibition. “You see him hand-painting canvases, and then silk-screening canvases, and then returning to paint in collaboration, and then filming video and television. In picking a very focused theme, like headlines, you can really wind your way through his career and watch him work and make his art,” says Donovan, who with three other members on her curatorial team became, for lack of a better term, investigative reporters on this hunt for Warhol’s most appropriate and important media-centric pieces. “We could also locate him in the process. For an artist who worked so hard to distance himself or seem cold from the world and his work, we know he is in there, so it is a matter of finding his hand."
A sampling from Warhol: Headlines, Daily News, 1962
|A sampling from Warhol: Headlines, New York Post (Madonna), 1985|
And what of Warhol’s decision to focus on this genre? As a man captivated by the idea of fame (another of his treasured quotes: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches”), his take on our role in it as a society was poignant. Tabloid culture was not something we simply wanted to read from afar as a guilty pleasure, because, in many ways, it was us. “The poking fun at the hyperbolic, exaggerated headlines are part of the work, of course,” says Donovan. “But there is a criticality there. He chose these headlines to feature. He selected them very carefully, whether he admitted it or not.” Hollywood scandals, such as actor Eddie Fisher’s breakdown, or Madonna’s bursting onto the scene, all made enough of an impact to spur Warhol into action. “I think Warhol would have told us that we created the scandals. We created the need for those tabloids and for that information. We kept wanting more,” says Donovan. “That is really what he is telling us—we are looking at ourselves and our own desires for information and for escape.” (In that sense, Warhol more than had a hunch about the future—he was downright prophetic.)
Our media-saturated world today is a function of a growing society inundated with need-toknow, need-to-know, rinse, repeat, rubbish. “Oh, he called it 50 years ago,” laughs Donovan. “He would have delighted in it today. Reveled in it. He would have been in the thick of it—obsessed with the Internet, social media, celebrity.” We love to hate today’s shameless boldfacers, to judge them, to question their motives, or, at times, to sympathize with their plight. Their headlines, as Warhol understood, captivate us. “I was starting to buy the National Enquirer and all of those magazines,” admits Donovan of her research. “When I saw something on the front page in any theme he tracked, I noticed how the themes were still so much in play, that they are part of a formula on which tabloid headlines are based to this day. He identified, decades ago, the obsession of the celebrity baby—the shame, the tragedy, the happiness—the subsets of all of that. And we are still watching!”
For Warhol, any average someone could be the subject of a news story, but it was much harder to be celebrated as a true celebrity. Ironically, more than anyone, he wanted to be famous— and through his body of work, a lifelong opus on the subject, he ultimately became just that. “We’re still very much in the Warhol media age,” says Donovan. “We are still in that era, which is why he feels so alive today, even though he’s been dead for almost 25 years.” He is still one of the most collectible and coveted artists, a fact that is, in the end, quite poetic. “I think overall his importance as an artist, value aside, has only appreciated. And he would have loved that, too.”
photograph by getty images (opener)