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Sex, Shame, Disaster and Warhol …

September 20, 2011

Warhol Headlines — a vibrant time capsule melding art, history and sociology opening Sunday, September 25 at the National Gallery of Art tautly captures Andy Warhol as prescient cultural cipher for our collective fascination with violent endings and tawdry behavior.  The paintings, photographs and ephemera from the early 1960’s to Warhol’s death in 1987, especially for those who lived through that period, should provoke a sharp twinge of recognition as they both recall events of that era and how an evolving tabloid-affected language characterizes and contextualizes events. Tragedy, for example, has turned into disaster porn, all the better if suffused with irony.

Andy Warhol, Tunafish Disaster, 1963. Andrew and Denise Saul © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition also provides interesting perspective on our Post war evolution (or de-evolution).   Consider for a moment that in the past 24 hours we’ve seen the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” and the removal of the last coin operated parking meter in New York City (on the exact 60th anniversary of its introduction) — cultural, sociological and technological changes that once seemed novel and shocking are now antiquated. So, it’s particularly entertaining to relive the brouhaha that followed publication of nude photos of Madonna, which now seems amusingly quaint in the era of “sexting.”

Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, Untitled (Madonna, I’m Not Ashamed), 1985 Collection Keith Haring Foundation, New York © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation

The celebrities in Warhol’s headline works were there because of some measure of actual achievement (sports figures, singers, actors, etc.), or notable accident of birth (royalty), not people famous for just … well, breathing (would someone please explain the Kardashians).

Andy Warhol, Daily News, 1962. Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, formerly Collection Karl Ströher, Darmstadt, 1981© 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork, Axel Schneider, Frankfurt am Main

As National Gallery curator Molly Donovan noted in the exhibition’s press preview, and as is borne out in the exhibition, we see a repetition of themes in the tabloids, from disaster to public humiliation.  Each new instance seems surprisingly, shockingly fresh despite being part of long, established patterns.  What’s not stale is the work itself — it remains vibrant, caustic, amusing, poignant, reverential and dishy … and a disturbingly incisive mirror.

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