By Desi Rubio, March 12, 2015. Photos courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

Reigning Queens: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, 1985

Widely remembered as the decade of peace, love and pop art, the ‘60s was a thrilling decade. This era saw world-changing events ranging from anti-war and civil rights movements to the Space Race and the emergence of pop culture.

It was also during the 1960s that respect and reverence was given to the fame and celebrity – and no one respected that lifestyle more than Andy Warhol.

For the first time ever, Arizonans are offered a glimpse into the mind of an American art icon and can experience his work in person at the Andy Warhol: Portraits exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, which runs through June 21.

According to Catherine Ingram’s biography, This is Warhol, as a child, Warhol was fascinated by Hollywood and often wrote to such stars as Shirley Temple. He was intrigued by the aesthetics of celebrity life, obsessed with power and beauty and he fantasized about reaching his own fame and fortune someday.

But until that day came, he focused on what he did best: draw.

Pop Art

Warhol graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949, majoring in pictorial design, and went on to gain experience as a commercial artist in New York City shortly thereafter.

Self-Portrait, 1986.

There, in the birthplace of post-World War II’s abstract expressionism, Warhol launched his career as a window dresser, book illustrator and contributor to such magazines as Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen.

Dissatisfied with this line of work, Warhol stopped making paintings based on comic strips in 1960 and, instead, created an image that would forever changed the art game: the Campbell’s Soup can.

Harsh criticism followed. Critics were outraged by Warhol’s creation, primarily because it wasn’t an original piece of art. Warhol’s response? A year later, exhibited 32 varieties of the Campbell’s Soup can in his first Pop exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles.

“Critics were not seeing clearly about his strong message about our cultural images such as Coca-Cola bottles or soup cans,” said Jerry Smith, Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of American and European art to 1950 and Art of the American West. “Those materials resonate strongly with us today.”

From there he quickly became “the master of repetition” and would apply this method to countless future projects.

Portraits

When his work was not centered pop culture, Warhol took on another controversial technique: portraits.

Upon arrival at the exhibit, guests are greeted by a 9-foot self-portrait of Warhol. The homage to one of the most influential figures in Contemporary art serves as a sample of the experience that awaits them.

The exhibition includes 200 portraits Warhol created between the 1940s and the 1980s, as well as some of his early drawings, videos and paintings. The collection is surrounded by colorful backgrounds, all complimenting the use of color in his work. Rich yellow and bright pink walls make the space feel funky and cool – just like the artist’s most successful decades.

Through his portraits, Warhol invited onlookers to see beyond the face of the subject to understand the emotions hidden under the surface. This was controversial, in large part, due to the fact that critics believed he was capitalizing on tragedy.

“It is really fascinating how Warhol looked at people as though they were products,” Smith said. “The humanity of the work is really powerful if you allow the images to really sink in.”

Walking through the space, guests will recognize many of the subjects of these portraits, including Sylvester Stallone, Prince, Queen Elizabeth II, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

The day Marilyn Monroe died of an apparent overdose in 1962 Warhol quickly requested a publicity still of her and created one of his most famous pieces, Marilyn. He produced several variations of bright neon colors and challenged viewers to see the sadness in her eyes as she struggled with heartbreak and drug addictions. According to Warhol, when the Marilyn’s lie adjacent to one another, he could see a different facial expression on each of them.

In 1964, he painted the Jackie, a series based on photos taken of the former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy before and after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.

“Warhol was fascinated and bothered by TV and radio telling people how to be sad,” Smith said. “The image is the brand, and we can’t really know the brand, but we recognize the celebrity.”

Film

When Warhol wasn’t working (a rare occurrence) he was capturing everyday moments on film with his Bolex camera. His life in New York City was surrounded by fascinating and attractive characters – from drag queens and boyfriends (who often worked as his assistants) to drug addicts and era socialites – all of which served as muses at one point or another.

“He treated every person in a similar manner and was very accepting” Smith said. “When he looked into their faces, he didn’t think anything else really mattered.”

Warhol is also known for his voyeurism and homoerotic films such as Blow Job, 1963, and Lonesome Cowboys, 1968. His home, known as “The Factory,” became a hotspot for work and partying in the mid-1960s and according to This is Warhol, he often watched people party as he had the camera rolling capturing every moment.

A separate room of the exhibit features a host of televisions playing his experimental films, such as Sleep, Eat and Kiss. Even Warhol’s MTV special, “15 minutes with Andy Warhol,” which underscores Warhol’s belief that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes in their lifetime, will be showcased.

Andy Warhol: Portraits

Through June 21

Phoenix Art Museum

1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

phxart.org/exhibition/warholportraits

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