Milwaukee museum displays Warhol works

October 6, 2009 4:42:56 AM PDT
When most people think of Andy Warhol, his 1960s pop art springs to mind: brightly colored Campbell's Soup cans or portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. But Warhol hated to be pigeonholed, so in the decade until he died in 1987 he experimented - with oxidation, abstraction, large-scale works and subjects like death and religion. He also returned to painting after taking time off to do film and television.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is displaying nearly 50 paintings from Warhol's last years in an exhibition called "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade." It is the first U.S. museum exhibit to examine this period.

"People forget the depth of what he was doing," said Vincent Fremont, a filmmaker who worked with Warhol for 17 years and described him as a second father. "I mean, he wasn't just a pop artist. In fact, he was a colorist, an installation artist, a conceptual artist and he was experimenting.

"He was going to areas where no one really realized."

Among the pieces on display are collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, large-scale Rorschach blots, dark self-portraits, camouflage patterns, oxidation paintings (referred to as "piss paintings" because he urinated on them) and his Last Supper series - the largest series he ever produced.

The museum also put together an exhibit from Warhol's pop art period. "Andy Warhol: Pop Star" includes Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong portraits from the museum's collection and a dollar-bill piece, owned by Milwaukee Brewers' owner Mark Attanasio. The museum first started acquiring Warhol works in 1967, even hosting an exhibition shortly after Warhol's death.

Both exhibits will be on display through Jan. 3.

"The Last Decade" curator Joe Ketner, who left the Milwaukee museum last year as head curator, said he got the idea a decade ago when he saw of one of Warhol's 12-foot-high, car-crash pieces in the storage room at Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"I'm standing there and there's this dead body hanging right in front of my face, and yes, I knew he did these car crashes, these disasters, but it kind of surprised me," he said. "I began to think about that subject and realizing how Warhol wasn't just this superficial guy doing glamour and wealth and beauty and all that stuff. He was dealing with tough subjects."

He hadn't seen any American museum exhibits that explored more than just his pop art phase so he investigated and realized just how prolific Warhol was. He estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of what's written about Warhol is about his pop art, which took up only four to six years of Warhol's time.

In Warhol's last decade he got work but not a lot of exhibitions in the U.S., Ketner said. He was showing his guns, knives and dollar-bill pieces. Either dealers didn't want to show this work or Warhol chose not to show them to the dealers - possibly because they didn't fit with his public persona, Ketner said.

Fremont, who was vice president of Andy Warhol Enterprises and executive manager of the Andy Warhol studio until his death, said Warhol was more than what he presented through his public persona.

"That was a smoke screen, he was much more complex," Fremont said. "He pretended to be very simple and pretend like he didn't' know anything." But in reality he was well-versed in art history and trained in classical drawing, Fremont said.

Ketner said Warhol felt these later works were important, even talking about it in his diary. Most were still in his estate when he died, Ketner said.

Some works appeared in exhibitions after he died, but most were in Europe or commercial galleries rather than museum projects.

Ketner estimated that Warhol created more new series of paintings in the last decade of his life than during any other phase of his 40-year career.

Warhol wanted to be known as a great artist and in his last decade he seemed to examine mortality - in self-portraits with fingers around his throat, in shadow or showing multiple faces.

Warhol also dabbled in abstraction. In the early 1980s, a yarn manufacturer commissioned Warhol to do a yarn portrait and Warhol ended up creating a Jackson Pollock-like photo transfer silk screen - showing a spaghetti effect of the yarn.

Private collectors and institutions - including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Baltimore Museum of Art and Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh - lent the Warhol pieces. After Milwaukee, the exhibition goes to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Feb. 14, then the Brooklyn Museum. It ends at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Ketner said he hopes the broader public, which only knows Warhol as soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, gets to see the range of work. He said Warhol was complex and his material ripe.

"This late work - because many didn't know about it and because of his commercialism - was very largely dismissed," Ketner said. "I would hope that by giving it some kind of framework or context - I don't expect to define what the late work is - but begin conversation for an earnest and sincere re-evaluation of the contribution that this work makes."

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