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Arts & Culture

The tragedies of Andy Warhol on display at the McNay

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Andy Warhol, Three Marilyns, 1962. Acrylic, screen-printing ink, and graphite on linen, 14 × 33½ in. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.60. © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There is nothing more banal than death — it happens to everyone. But for collectors, death is the best career move an artist can make. It limits supply, driving prices up. And being dead, the artist is not able to diminish his legacy by making unacceptable art. Of course, things can go the other way. The artist can fall into oblivion, and if he is not already famous, the likelihood of attaining posthumous success is small. Andy Warhol once complained to the art curator and critic Henry Geldzahler, "It will take my death for the Museum of Modern Art to recognize my work." He was right. Within weeks of his fluke death at the age of 58 after a routine operation for gallstones, the top museum of twentieth-century art began plans for a retrospective of his work.

More than two decades after his death in 1987, Andy Warhol is still the most recognized American artist of the last century. His Pop paintings and prints of Brillo boxes and depictions of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and other celebrities have been reproduced countless times, becoming in the popular imagination almost as numerous as the publicity photos and consumer goods they portray. Warhol borrowed from popular culture, and completed the circle by becoming part of it. More than famous, Andy Warhol is a brand.

Since the MOMA show in 1989, there have been many Warhol shows culled from private and museum collections, but "Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune" now on view at the McNay stands out as a singular exploration of the artist's dual obsessions with fame and tragedy. Organized by McNay Chief Curator René Paul Barilleaux, the exhibition presents 150 objects, including paintings, prints, sculpture, and film, on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist's hometown.

Born in 1928 to East European immigrants in the factory town of Pittsburgh, Warhol relieved the tedium of his working-class childhood by collecting celebrity photographs, fixating on Shirley Temple as an idol. After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he went to New York City in 1949 in search of his own fame and fortune. He found recognition first as a commercial artist specializing in women's fashion, but it wasn't until his 1962 show at the Stable Gallery that Warhol hit on the formula that eventually made him world famous. In the Campbell's Soup series, he used silk-screening over a painted background to faithfully replicate the labels of the cheap, mass-produced tinned food. His Marilyn paintings, copied from a publicity shot for her film Niagara, also used screen-printing, but differed from the soup paintings in their use of violent colors and mis-registration of the print image. Warhol portrayed the actress (whose recent death was ruled a suicide) in multiple, identifying the film icon with the soup as a mass-produced commodity. She died, consumed by her fans.

Warhol would continue using silk-screening, garish colors, and multiple images in his paintings throughout his career. He emphasized a mechanized crafts approach to making art by working with assistants in a series of large studios dubbed the Factory. It was hardly the slapdash effort he made it out to be. To make a portrait, he would take many photographs of his subject, and have the high-contrast image enlarged to the size of the painting before the silk-screen was made. But before the image was applied to the canvas, an underpainting exaggerating aspects of the face was painted. More paint was often applied after the screen-print was squeegeed on. Warhol delighted in portraying himself as a disinterested part of a mechanized, impersonal world, but his art process was labor intensive.

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