World of Warhol

Two shows of lesser-known works offer a more complete portrait of the artist


“Daily News” (National Gallery): A rare example of flower power in Warhol’s work, this 1967 piece obscures the front page of an edition of the New York Daily News — and its headline about a bellicose President Lyndon Johnson — with red, yellow, green and lavender flowers, whose shapes were taken from a commercially manufactured applique sheet.

Andy Warhol has certainly enjoyed more than the 15 minutes of fame he famously predicted we’d each be allotted. Four decades after he painted them, his soup cans, Brillo boxes and superstar portraits continue to define Pop Art, confronting culture through images that are symbolically freighted yet familiar. They are, as Warhol himself once said, “surface.”

But however simple Warhol’s art looks, he was too restless and prolific to be truly understood through only his best-known works. Now, some of Warhol’s earliest and later works are eyeing each other from opposite sides of the Mall. The National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit “Warhol: Headlines” and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibit “Warhol: Shadows” reveal surprising new sides of the artist. (The concurrence of the two exhibits is coincidental — each was planned independently — but the museums have collaborated on programming efforts.)

The shows have a few things in common: They demonstrate Warhol’s interest in repetition and mechanical reproduction. But where the National Gallery’s show focuses on works that riff on daily reality, the Hirshhorn displays one of Warhol’s lesser-known forays into abstraction — long after he was through taunting abstract expressionists by painting commercial products.


“Fate Presto” (National Gallery): This 1981 piece comprises three variations on the front page of an Italian newspaper calling for aid to earthquake victims. Never before exhibited in the U.S., the paintings are “really important,” says Matt Wrbican, an archivist at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “They’re the first thing he did on newspaper themes after a break of 10 to 15 years.” The triptych is also unusually direct for the usually detached Warhol. “It shows him at his most empathetic,” says National Gallery of Art associate curator Molly Donovan.

“Headlines” is the more diverse show, featuring paintings, drawings, photos and video, as well as artifacts from Warhol’s collection of ephemera. The display begins with paintings inspired by New York tabloids and includes collaborations with graffiti artist Keith Haring and episodes of Warhol-produced TV shows, real and imaginary. “In ‘Headlines,’ we see the subjects that interested Warhol throughout his career, celebrity and tragedy being chief among them,” says Molly Donovan, associate curator at the National Gallery of Art.

“Shadows” is essentially “a single painting in 102 parts,” explains Evelyn Hankins, an associate curator at the Hirshhorn. The 52-inch-by-76-inch paintings are variations on a near-abstract photo of shadows. Painted in 1978-79, “Shadows” was been shown before, 30 years ago, but never in its entirety. The paintings stretch around the Hirshhorn’s circular second floor, suggesting frames from a film, another of Warhol’s favorite mediums.

Whether abstract or representational, Warhol’s paintings are freeze-frames. As Donovan says of his newspaper-oriented works, “They’re like little moments in the story he was telling about his time.”


“Shadows” (Hirshhorn): Based on a photograph of shadows in Warhol’s studio, this vast sequence, made in 1978-1979, is a “sardonic” commentary on abstract expressionism, said associate Hirshhorn curator Evelyn Hankins. But it’s also a rich and varied visual experience. “He never did anything else on this scale,” she says. “It’s a knockout.”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW; through Jan. 15, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza); National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Jan. 2, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)

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Kristen Page-Kirby · September 28, 2011