Twenty-five years after his untimely death in early 1987, Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol is still best known for the subversive, strangely deadpan way in which his paintings and prints make you think twice about the most familiar icons of American consumer culture.
In his hands, ordinary Campbell's Soup cans and Coke bottles took on a new kind of life, straining the mind and eyes in ways that forced critics and viewers alike to reshape their definitions of art.
Like many other artists before him, however, Warhol didn't glean much profit from these revolutionary images. Instead, he made his bread and butter from a high-volume business in which he and a small army of assistants produced the late-20th-century version of the society portrait.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, virtually everyone who was anyone came to his midtown Manhattan studio — known as The Factory — clamoring to have their likenesses captured by one of his distinctive silkscreen paintings.
And even at $25,000 a pop, the rich, famous and powerful lined up alongside the beautiful, the notorious and the avant garde in such outlandish numbers that Warhol ultimately worked with more than 1,100 sitters.
Now, more than 100 of these images have been gathered along with a selection of early drawings, photographs and films for a summer exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Arts in Virginia Beach.
Drawn from the collection of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, "Andy Warhol: Portraits" offers a voluminous look at a landmark enterprise that was as much a visual diary of Warhol's life as a business and a means of making art.
"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am," he once said.
"There's nothing behind it."
Warhol created his first silkscreen portrait just weeks after the August 1962 death of actress Marilyn Monroe, using a black-and-white publicity still from her 1953 film, "Niagara," as the basis for a series of arresting, vividly colored likenesses.
Other pop culture portraits soon followed, including a notable series of Elvises based on publicity photos, too. Then Warhol turned his attention to friends, art collectors and other acquaintances, transforming their faces in ways that mimicked his visions of movie stars and performers.
In the earliest portraits, Warhol asked his sitters to meet him at a photo booth, where he'd collect a series of spontaneous black-and-white snapshots that not only unfolded and changed through time but also provided the raw material for an animated multiple-image portrait.
Many of these sessions took place at an arcade in Times Square, with Warhol standing outside the curtain directing his subject's expressions, checking each new series of shots and insisting that his sitter provide the quarters.
After he discovered the Polaroid Big Shot portrait camera in 1971, however, Warhol abandoned the photo booth, documenting each subject's face instead with dozens of equally instantaneous yet high-contrast Polaroid photos that he took himself.
In most cases, he and his assistants would apply stage make-up to his female sitters' skin, then have them assume a bare-shouldered pose. He also had male subjects position their hands in ways that would hide wrinkles, double chins and other imperfections in addition to projecting a feeling of character.
"Even beauties can be unattractive," Warhol once said, describing this impulse to flatter.
"If you catch a beauty in the wrong light at the right time, forget it."
Ultimately, each photograph inspired a shifting, multi-layered image that sandwiched together a vividly painted face and background with vibrantly colored highlights accentuating such features as the eyes and lips. Then the inky black Polaroid likeness was silk-screened across the surface, followed in some cases by additional strokes of color as a finish.
What resulted were portraits that simplified and complicated his subjects at the same time, draining them of their physical imperfections while making them look more beautiful and larger than life. In almost every case, in fact, the eye-grabbing hues Warhol used to give life to their faces were far brasher, sexier and more provocative than the most theatrical make-up.
Despite his intense focus on physical appearance, however, Warhol's eye-grabbing portraits regularly provoked speculation about the personality and character of their sitters, too, especially when they confronted the viewer with multiple yet slightly different likenesses.
So adroit was his choice of color — and the tell-tale stroke of his brush — that even the most anonymous of his subjects makes viewers today stop and wonder just who it is peering out from behind the provocative veneer of the portrait.
"Everything has its beauty," Warhol once said.
"But not everyone sees it."
Want to go?
"Andy Warhol: Portraits"
Where: Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, 2500 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m,-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Aug. 19
Cost: $10 adults, $7 students
Info: 757-425-000; http://www.virginiamoca.org
Online: Go to dailypress.com/warhol2012 to see a gallery of images from the show.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun