The ad photo for the new exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum, Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol's Work, features Andy peering at the viewer through the hollow of a tambourine, his head wreathed in shining cymbals. The image is apt. Warhol is frequently characterized as having surrounded himself with glamor, hipness and the magical aura of the Beautiful People. But at his nominal North Side headquarters, at least, it's been rare that the artist's celebration of celebrity, and his involvement in the active culture of the living, breathing "star" -- rather than the drifting notion of fame -- has been this cogently laid out.
The museum's seventh floor is devoted to Warhol's ties to rock music and performance. Of course, associating Warhol with rock 'n' roll has been done, and done again. But here the notion is demonstrated. The silkscreened portraits of famous faces, and the party photographs by Billy Name or some other hench-documentarian, still abound. But also exhibited are less-frequently seen shots of members of the Velvet Underground laughing with one another as they play. Nearby, viewers can enjoy the portrait-style screen tests of the band (tastefully and effectively arranged in a row of five small monitors) and of exemplary whackjob Salvador Dali (who somehow manages never to blink). Dali's presence might seem anomalous, but in his public bearing and self-indulgent eccentricity, he was, after all, every bit a rock idol.
There is a share of kitsch. Though it's well known that Warhol himself hoarded more than a little paraphernalia, the guitars that once belonged to the Velvets, encased in glass, lean too far toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And the pinball machines in the lobby seem a strange addition.
The artist, we see, was even more adept at collecting famous faces. Besides Lou Reed and John Cale, the halls are loaded with society shots of Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Debbie Harry, Bob Dylan. On a sixth-floor monitor playing an episode of Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes, a younger Ian McKellen even strolls into the frame to recite a little poetry.
But if a few dozen photographs of schmoozing tabloid bait don't thrill you, don't be deterred. The Warhol augments its serigraphed staples with a few less-familiar extras. One such is a Marilyn (wait for it) screened onto a small, gold-ground canvas. Unyieldingly reverent even in its humble size, the painting exposes the elusive Andy in a way rarely seen, the subject's lipstick-bounded smile adopting the somber significance of the churchgoing Warhola boy's sacred Virgin. It's a bit sad and a bit weird when viewed as such an unequivocal distillation of Warhol's obsession with stardom.
The mainstay "Elvis 11 Times" also has some company nearby, with single, double and triple prints on the same silver ground. For your consideration, it's the Warhol portrait formula distilled -- the importance of the basic image gives way to the absence of setting and the possible implications of repetition. Why one Elvis, or three, or 11?
Warhol's early illustration work also receives face time. Some of his fashion-oriented commercial work appears, as do a gestural drawing for a production of The Magic Flute and endearingly innocent doodles like "Three Music Staffs with Faces." And in a use of archival footage so natural and effective it's a wonder it's only being exploited now, film of the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance production Rainforest, which involved Warhol's "Silver Clouds," plays on a screen inside the "Silver Cloud Room" itself. The peripheral addition of the real balloons recalls the kinetic immediacy of the original.
It's this sort of resourcefulness that makes Warhol Live, while still another Warhol survey, an exceptionally engaging and informative one. The museum has assembled an unusually well-rounded, sometimes even tongue-in-cheek look at Warhol as both manipulator and disciple of stardom, at once enigmatic mastermind and gawking little boy.
Warhol Live continues through Sept. 13. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
- Photo courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.
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