Pop goes the art

The very first artwork that visitors to the new Andy Warhol exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art will see costs $88 a roll — a mere pittance for a masterpiece — and must be pasted up carefully to avoid air bubbles.

Unlike most of the priceless canvases inside "Andy Warhol: the Last Decade," which opens Oct. 17, no alarm bells will sound if guests rest their backs against the artist's self-portrait, or reach over to tweak his paper nose. Museum officials won't rush to dial their insurance carrier if Warhol's creation gets smudged or even a bit raggedy during the nearly three months it will be on display.

"It goes up, it serves its purpose, and it comes down" says Kristen Hileman, the museum's curator of contemporary art. "If the wallpaper does show signs of wear and tear, that's just part of the work."

But, that doesn't mean that this wallpaper isn't valuable. Every scrap of the 42 rolls making up the 1978 work titled "Self-Portrait Wallpaper" must be carefully accounted for. Museum officials are trying to prevent an enterprising thief from cutting out one of the 41-inch-by-28-inch panels and selling it on eBay.

"Every sliver, every scraping must be destroyed," says Karen Nielsen, the director of museum design and installation. "Anything we don't use or shred must be sent back to the Warhol estate. If someone were to take some of the wallpaper and frame it, they'd have a piece of great art for free."

Warhol has been dead since 1987. But chances are that up in that great Factory in the sky, his spirit is smirking.

The artist nicknamed Drella — a combination of "Dracula" and " Cinderella" — is best known for the iconic images he created during the 1960s of soup cans and soda bottles, and of such celebrities as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

"There are a lot of contradictions in Andy Warhol's work," Hileman says. "He really pushes people to think about what art is and what it is not. He definitely celebrated everyday people and mass culture, but he also was very much a businessman. Even in his lifetime, his work fetched high prices. There's an elite art market that's not accessible to the average person, but to only those in the top tiers of society."

The exhibit, which has previously stopped off in Milwaukee; Fort Worth, Texas; and Brooklyn, N.Y., is an attempt to rehabilitate Warhol's reputation, which suffered during the final phase of his career. At the time, Warhol was widely dismissed as a sellout, partly because he painted portraits for hire to finance his moviemaking projects.

"This is the first museum exhibition in the United States to cover the years between 1976 and 1987," museum director Doreen Bolger says. "It adds a new dimension to the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

"During these years, Warhol dramatically transformed his style. He returned to painting and invested the medium with new vigor. With much more limited technological means, he pushed the envelope of experimentation in a way that continues to inspire artists today."

For instance, the exhibit's audio tour is narrated by Lou Reed, the gravel-voiced rocker who was the frontman for The Velvet Underground. (Warhol managed the Underground during its early years and famously designed the band's first album cover.)

And over in the interactive Last Decade Lounge — a sitting room done up with acrylic furniture and orange beanbag chairs — hangs a photo of a 29-year-old John Waters, which Warhol shot during a visit to Baltimore in 1975.

The exhibit contains more than 50 works, some of which are the largest pieces that Warhol ever created, and demonstrate the artist's move away from strict representationalism to his experiments with abstract art.

There are yarn paintings that evoke Jackson Pollock's "drip works," two oversized canvases based on Rorschach inkblots, and a series of paintings based on shadows.

"These paintings aren't purely representational and they aren't purely abstract, but occupy a ground somewhere in between," Hileman says. "The shadows have been cast by something physical and concrete."

Virtually every piece in the exhibit poses the provocative questions that so delighted the maverick artist. At times, he seems to be going almost out of his way to offend.

For instance, in the "Oxidation Paintings" from 1978, the artist applied metallic paint to several canvases. He placed them on his studio floor and encouraged visitors to urinate all over them. The chemical reaction that occurred produced golds and coppers and greens.

Hileman says that she personally finds these works to be quite beautiful but will understand if some visitors think they're vulgar.

"By leaving the final result up to chance, Warhol is taking the artist out of the creative process," she says. "Of course, he still chose which canvases to frame."

And, of course, for all of Warhol's seeming interest in downgrading the artist's role, it's not as though he lacked chutzpah.

Several times in the show — in a bleached, beige and white rendition of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and in three variations on "The Last Supper" — Warhol takes on one of the world's premier artistic geniuses.

True, those paintings and prints can be interpreted any number of ways. But, Warhol also couldn't have been unaware of the comparison that he was inviting, especially since the latter were first seen in a Milan gallery located literally across the street from da Vinci's fresco.

It is, perhaps, a typically in-your-face rebuke to the naysayers who were dismissing Warhol as a washed-up has-been, as a celebrity who had become more famous for his partying than his current paintings.

"It's a problem that many artists face," Hileman says. "They become very well-known for their early work. Then, what do they do next?"

Taken together, the pieces that make up "Warhol: The Last Decade" are darker in tone than are the works from the 1960s that first made him famous, the can of tomato soup and the color-skewed renditions of Marilyn Monroe.

The one Marilyn in this show is almost entirely black, with just a few brief highlights in gray. In several self-portraits, a skull is superimposed either directly above the artist's head or peering over his shoulder. In one, Warhol is being strangled by two skeletal hands.

The wallpaper is a rare example from this period of a work that is as playful in tone, as lightly ironic, as the early pieces.

Because of the very homeliness of the materials that Warhol used — a vinyl sheet — it seems accessible in a way that not all of his art manages to be. Museum visitors respond to the wallpaper right away. When they see it, they smile. They get the joke.

In a way, the work satirizes the ubiquity of certain figures in popular culture. The rather idealized, ageless, self-portrait at the museum entrance is repeated 111 times. Once they get inside, exhibit goers see the wallpaper yet again.

"It's more than a self-portrait," Hileman says. "It becomes a comment on celebrity. By 1978, Warhol was famous himself. He'd become the equivalent of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley."

And Warhol was playing, quite mischievously, with the whole question of what makes a work of art valuable.

For instance, contractor Larry Zamensky — known to the museum staff as Larry the Wallpaper Guy — was the one responsible for plastering up Warhol's famous mug. Museum regulations required that he be assigned his own personal security guard, who trailed him even on bathroom breaks. When Zamensky left the museum for the day, his bags were checked to ensure that he wasn't taking out part of a roll.

And yet, there were times when, to make a piece fit properly, Zamensky had to take his razor and slice right through Warhol's visage. He said he felt no sense of sacrilege at the defacement.

"It's very expensive, and I don't want to mess it up," he says. "But other than that, wallpaper's wallpaper."


If you go

Andy Warhol: The Last Decade runs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 N. Art Museum Drive, Oct. 17 through Jan. 9, 2011. Tickets cost $5-$15, with museum members admitted free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

More Warhol

Can't get enough of the Pope of Pop? Two related free exhibits will allow guests to delve even deeper into the enigma that was Andy Warhol:

"The Velvet Years 1965-67: Warhol's Factory" is running through Dec. 31 in the Kuhn Library Gallery on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle. Photographs by Stephen Shore depict the scene at Warhol's Factory between 1965 and 1967, when the artist was championing "The Velvet Underground," the then-emerging rock band fronted by Lou Reed. Call 410-455-2270 or go to umbc.edu/arts.

An installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art by contemporary artists Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker demonstrates Warhol's influence on a new generation of creators. "Guyton/Walker" runs through Jan. 16, 2011. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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