April 7, 2006

Fame and violence collide in MCA’s Warhol exhibit

At first glance, there’s a pretty large difference between “stars” on the one hand and “deaths and disasters” on the other. But, as Andy Warhol asked in his early years of silk screening, what’s the difference between our fascination with celebrity and our fascination with car crashes and freak accidents? Tie a couple of these together—like Marilyn Monroe’s suicide or Jackie Kennedy’s public mourning for her slain husband—and you have a media phenomenon.

A supernova, according to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, is “A star that undergoes a sudden and temporary increase in brightness…as a result of an explosion that disperses most of the stellar material.” Celebrity and catastrophe, then, become one, and Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters 1962-1964, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, highlights the multitude of ways that Warhol explored these facets in his early years of pop art.

Chances are, you’ve seen many of the works on display here—as reproductions, most likely. Warhol’s work is complicated by the fact that he had no particular attachment to the manner in which it was displayed. Elvis, for example, was shipped to a gallery as an entire, uncut roll of prints—the exhibitor was instructed simply to cut where he saw fit and fill the walls. In other words, there isn’t much aura to Warhol’s pieces; his constant plays on media and reproduction successfully rendered his own ubiquitous art into the same category of over-displayed imagery that he tried to point out. To be honest, there isn’t much difference between the Turquoise Marilyn and Elvis on display at the MCA and the same works I’ve seen made into earrings and T-shirts.

The real pleasure in this exhibit comes from catching an idea of the historical moment in which Warhol created these works. Cases of source material throughout the exhibit offer a unique glimpse of the media images he drew his inspiration from. These photos, most of which were clipped from Life magazine, are strikingly banal—typical news photographs of accidents, disasters, and glamour shots of actresses. Only when Warhol blows them up, multiplies them, and dashes color on them does the viewer recognize his sly commentary on the media’s hold on American life.

Less well known—or at least less reproduced—pieces like Race Riot and Silver Disaster #6 are more striking in their historicity. There’s more than a little irony in the fact that Warhol is best remembered today for his blown-up, colorful pictures of celebrities and soup cans, although he was equally concerned with stark, violent images of death and disaster.

Also worth a visit are Screen Tests, four-minute video portraits of stars, artists, and writers, including Marcel Duchamp and Susan Sontag. The MCA is screening other short films this weekend, including Outer and Inner Space, Kiss, Eat, and Couch. Like Screen Tests, these films deal with representation and media. Kiss reacts to Hollywood’s 1922 mandate against “excessive kissing” with an hour-long series of smooches. It’s a shame, though, that these films weren’t incorporated into the exhibit itself, as they are less accessible than Warhol’s two-dimensional works.

Those expecting a typical blockbuster tour of an artist’s most famous works—like the recent Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec exhibits at the Art Institute—will be disappointed. Given the difficulty of obtaining original Warhol works, though, this exhibit’s small scope is understandable. Supernova is well worth visiting for the thoroughness with which these significant, formative years are explored.