IN THE FUTURE, everyone will own an Andy Warhol painting for 15 minutes.
Okay, maybe not, but the guy wasn't exactly Vermeer, who bequeathed only about 35 canvases for collectors and scholars to contemplate (and covet). Thanks to the miracle of silkscreen printing and a workshop ("the Factory") full of assistants, Warhol created thousands of paintings, enough for every major modern art gallery in the world to have several and still leave about 5,000 objects that ended up at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the hometown he despised.
Warhol's paintings are widely dispersed, and -- thanks to their crisp iconography and impeccable graphic design -- far more widely reproduced. Even people who never enter art museums have probably seen one (or many more) of the artist's Campbell's soup cans, Brillo boxes, Marilyns, Maos and Elvises. Models from all these product lines are included, as they must be, in "Warhol Legacy: Selections From the Andy Warhol Museum," an exhibition opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. But so are examples of some lesser-known genres, especially the artist's early drawings. These make the 150-piece show essential for anyone interested in mid-20th-century American art, even those who think they've encountered every Warhol idea at least twice.
Warhol was both a simple and a complex character, combining the sensibilities of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Duchamp and Charlie the Tuna. He began as an advertising artist, and he was a good one, as the examples in this show demonstrate. He loved commercialism, banality and mass production yet often made art that reflected his place in Manhattan's avant-garde and gay subcultures. When not exalting Campbell's soup, he drew erotic male nudes, directed films that most multiplex-goers would find unwatchable and sponsored the Velvet Underground, a vastly influential but hopelessly unmarketable '60s rock band that terrified radio programmers and hippies alike.
If Warhol seemed detached and affectless, part child and part voyeur, he didn't escape the craziness of the decade that defined him. In 1968, he was shot by unhinged artist and radical feminist Valerie Solanas, and this event seems to have changed him profoundly. After that, Warhol's public persona became more mercantile, more pointedly shallow and more enamored of mass celebrity. Yet even as he turned out predictable head shots of fleeting stars, he continued to experiment, collaborating with younger artists and privately returning to drawing.
Most of Warhol's output falls, however ironically, into the categories of still life or portrait. This show further divides thematically into individual galleries: celebrity likenesses (including a mini-room for Polaroids and photo-booth strips); abstractions; Chairman Mao Zedong, in paintings and on wallpaper; drawings and commercially printed work; "screen tests" (short filmed portraits); death and disaster, a '60s series of what are essentially still lifes of disturbing newspaper images; and a related sequence from the '80s of guns, knives, crosses and dollar signs -- U.S.A. reduced by Warhol to four symbols of power.
Nearly all of the paintings use mechanical reproduction, although in different ways and for different purposes. Most of the abstractions, for example, are not abstract at all. They're patterns of various sorts, including camouflage and shadows, that have been stylized to the point where color and form upstage the underlying subject matter. (The exception here is one in a series of "oxidation paintings," whose liquid forms are the result of urine.) Warhol also used painterly brush strokes in the abstract expressionist mode, but mostly to garnish emblematic silk-screened images, notably in the Mao series.
Warhol's portraits of the late Chinese leader have been condemned on political grounds, just as the artist was once criticized (from the opposite direction) for socializing with the likes of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Warhol does seem to have been politically tone deaf or maybe just pleased to offend the more ideologically engaged. But how could a painter who adored repetition and duplication resist the man whose portrait was among the most ubiquitous in human history? In retrospect, Warhol's '70s Maos look a lot more pertinent to his overarching themes than do his bland, formulaic '80s renderings of Michael Jackson (who outlasted his 15 minutes of fame) and Cheryl Tiegs (who wouldn't have, if not for Warhol's rendering of her).
It was the '50s and '60s, though, that produced most of this show's surprises. In the back galleries, past the large paintings with their hot pinks and glistening silvers, are works on paper that show remarkable delicacy of line and color. Even when sketching with a ballpoint pen, though, Warhol had a flamboyant streak. Several of his simple, assured renderings of men, animals and objects incorporate gold leaf; these drawings, especially "Monkey," suggest a familiarity with Asian art not seen in his better-known paintings.
Some of these pieces are obviously commercial art or were influenced by it. They use dyes, sprayed paint and acetate overlays, all relics of the pre-computer age of graphic design. Yet the drawings are also uncharacteristically personal. In addition to the nudes, they include images of nose jobs -- Warhol had one -- and idealized self-portraits. The '80s drawings, which are essentially distillations of Warhol's portrait-painting style, are generally less interesting but include one rendering of a bullet's trajectory through a person's chest. Even though the torso is female, the wound seems autobiographical.
Warhol was also an artist of collaboration, inspiration and scene-making, and this show gives some indication of that: The 1965-66 screen tests observe such peers as critic Susan Sontag, looking astonishingly girlish; singer-actress Nico, weighed down by her massive false eyelashes; and Velvet Underground singer-guitarist Lou Reed, who also appears on a flexi-disc that was part of a multimedia book, "Andy Warhol's Index." (If you could get the disc out of the display case and onto a record player, you'd hear a party conversation between Reed and Nico.)
These people are the artist's subjects, too, just like Marilyn and Jackie and the electric chair. They're part of the world that Warhol, the voyeur king, created for himself, and for us. That's one of the ideas that keep his work, as familiar as it is, engaging and provocative. It could be argued that if you've seen one Warhol, you've seen them all. Yet the 150 in this show aren't enough to fully chart his range and influence.
WARHOL LEGACY: SELECTIONS FROM THE ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM -- Saturday through Feb. 20. Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org.