Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Warhol, who died in 1987, might have prophesied today’s social media hungry society. However, his own 15 minutes of fame continues as people discuss his work and the man himself.
Greg Metcalf, professor of film and 20th century art at the University of Maryland College Park, will discuss Warhol’s celebrities during Art at Noon on Friday at the Delaplaine Arts Center in Frederick. Metcalf will draw from his essay, “Heroes, Myth and Cultural Icons: Celebrated Commodities and Commodified Celebrities in Andy Warhol’s Portraits,” as well as the 1998 exhibition, “Reframing Andy Warhol: Constructing American Myths, Heroes and Cultural Icons.”
The lecture, which is set from noon to 1 p.m., will be accompanied by samplings of champagne provided by Spin The Bottle Wine Co. and craft soda from The North Market Pop Shop. Admission is free.
Metcalf took some time to answer a few questions via email about his upcoming talk.
What is it about Andy Warhol that we continue to talk about him as a person and artist?
Metcalf: I think it is that he and his art seem simple and attractive, but he’s using images and the types of images that surround us but we often don’t pay attention to so there’s a little something that makes him stick in our memory. He and his artwork have the same characteristics as the main subject of his work — celebrity.
Warhol was always attracted to pop culture, which can be seen in his work that we’ve termed pop art. If you look, though, at his iconic “Marilyn Monroe, 1967,” it seems simplistic of a repetition of headshots in different colors. What makes this piece a more complex work than one realizes?
Metcalf: It is a commentary on celebrity from the post-WWII period when mass media and advertising dominate our consciousness. This meant you did not see just one image of Marilyn Monroe. You saw countless repetitions of the same images everywhere you looked. Marilyn Monroe — like Campbell’s Soup— was a celebrity because she — or her image — was ubiquitous. Warhol seems to be the first artist or cultural critic to pick up on this new phenomenon of the mid-century media and advertising saturation, which developed after WWII.
The technique he uses — silk screen printing a publicity photograph of Monroe over and over again was very much a commercial printing technique for posters and packaging. Silk screen prints were not considered an “artistic” technique at the time, in part because it was a cheap and rough process. The images on silk screens, like basic printing press plates used to print newspapers at the time, would gradually build up ink on the surface, making the images break down or fill in with unwanted ink. If you look at others of his celebrity images of the time — other Marilyns or the multiple Elvises, for example — Warhol intentionally shows us those deteriorations of image, linking the images in another way to the realities of mass media.
Do you have a favorite of his celebrity portraits? If so, which one and why?
Metcalf: Purely for the technique, I like the very large (11 foot by 15 foot) 1973 Mao Tse-tung piece at the Chicago Art Institute. Warhol had a great color sense and, in a way, if you remove the image of Mao what you are left with is an Abstract Expressionist-sized canvas covered with their broad gestural strokes while the photographic silkscreen on top ... completely rejects their approach to art-making.
Conceptually, I’m very fond of his O.J. Simpson from his 1977 series of 10 Celebrity Athletes because people react to it [in] completely opposite ways — some see Warhol presenting him as a hero, some see Warhol turning him into a villain — underscoring the way Warhol gives us the image and then expects us to decide what it means.
You’ll be leading a discussion about Warhol’s celebrities at the Delaplaine. What will be some of the highlights from your talk?
Metcalf: I’ll talk about taking Warhol’s art more seriously as a reflection of what American culture cared — and continues to care — about. Almost all of Warhol’s artwork can be understood as images of commodified celebrities — people who have been turned into commercial properties — and celebrity commodities — the best-selling brand of soup, the best-selling brand of cleaning pads, the best-selling perfume …. Warhol would have completely understood the Kardashians and how a reality show host could become president because he made no distinctions when it came to how people became famous.
Warhol’s Ads Series (1985) included a Van Heusen shirt ad featuring pre-presidential Ronald Reagan assuring us that “the new revolutionary collar … won’t wrinkle ever.”
(Warhol’s 1963 piece “That Was the Week that Was” was a triptych of silk-screened photographic images lifted from popular media of recently assassinated President John F Kennedy, his widow Jackie Kennedy and his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. It doesn’t matter how you become famous — as martyr, as victim, as killer — what matters is that you are famous.)
I will also talk about the fact that Warhol does not make images of people. He makes images of labels, images used to sell. Marilyn is not a portrait of a person, it is a picture of the image that person was turned into: Marilyn Monroe.
What do you believe Warhol’s biggest contribution has been to the art world?
Metcalf: This is a difficult question. He highlighted a variety of ways we are obsessed with celebrity, but most people ignored — and ignore — that element of his work.
He set a new model of the artist as a celebrity that led to many of the East Village artists of the 1980s working very hard on being celebrities, but not so much on making decent art. Not a good contribution.
Probably the way he made art that actually reflected what was going on in the culture, rather than trying to stand remote from it.
Warhol (and others around him) provide breathing space after the heavy, existential themes and inaccessibility of Abstract Expressionism. His work made people feel better about looking at art without studying it, and he opened ways of using popular mass-mediated art in the making of ‘elite’ art.
The artists I think of off the top of my head — (besides Haring and Basquiat who were open about their influence) — Kara Walker, Banksy, Michael Ray Charles, Barbara Krueger, Cindy Sherman, do very different art, often more openly making cultural art that uses pop culture/mass media images but to different ends and I wouldn’t want to suggest in any way that they are derivative of Warhol).
What do you hope people will learn about Warhol from your talk?
Metcalf: That there’s more going on in Andy Warhol’s art than we notice, that it reflects the culture when it was made when mass-mediated celebrity was taking the form and influence we take for granted today.
Follow Crystal Schelle on Twitter: @crystalschelle.