Saturday, August 7, 2010

One More Month of Warhol

by Stephen Cummings

Andy Warhol, 1966, Screen Test, Edie Sedgwick, ©2008 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Andy Warhol is known for his detachment. He had a penchant for flippancy that pervaded both his art and his persona. Celebrities, products, processes; all became serialized in Warhol's work. Nothing is sacred. Everything is glamour. This unconcern has caused the artist to be written off in circles both public and artistic, even as he is celebrated in alternate sects of the same. Such hostility is understandable, but ill placed, for it is precisely in Warhol's detachment that his profundity lies. If there is any doubt, a visit to Seattle Art Museum may be in order. (But there's only a month left.)

On view through September 6th, Love Fear Lust Pleasure Pain Glamour Death is a collection of photographs and films by the man who embodied both Pop Art and avant garde cinema during the 20th century. No, you won't find any of Warhol's famous silk-screens here, but the selection on view is well more than satisfying, making for a commendable exhibition that combines those two most essential — and simple — elements: great work, and the space to see them.

The heart of this show features about two dozen of Warhol's Screen Tests — short films of roughly four and half minutes which feature a single actor (or singer, or model, or regular Joe, etc.) full frame from about the neck up. It is very important to watch the full four and a half minutes. These films are Warhol's passivity at perhaps its most striking. The camera never moves. The lighting never changes. The background is nondescript. With so much inaction, we are confronted with the bare reality of another human being. They stare back at us (typically). They stare back at you. You begin to notice small details: tendencies, ticks, discomfort. The shape of a shadow, the mouth, the strain of sitting. Sometimes an unnerving cool. Looking at this person, studying this person, you begin to feel as if you know this person — as if you have known this person. Occasionally it seems as if this person knows you. These films, static and removed, uncut, not physically present but captured from their original prints and digitally projected, remain formidably intimate. Displayed side by side and opposite one another in two galleries, these slow, silent films infuse the space with a glowing intensity.

On either side of the central galleries can be found some of Warhol's immobile photographs, often straightforward as their filmic counterparts, if not quite so staggering. In one room: photo booth portraits, in another: internal dye diffusion transfer prints — which is to say, Polaroids — and in another: sewn gelatin silver prints (that go a little too far in asserting their made quality, and assuming their own importance). Finally, the museum offers visitors an interactive portion: a photo booth, which, in uncharacteristic fashion for art museum interactivity, manages to be rather interesting. Probably it's because people like to look at people, but whatever the case, having your photo taken and adding it to the wall of faces adjacent is a surprisingly engaging activity (as well as a brilliant money-making venture for SAM). Not only do you get to examine the visages of your fellow museum goers, you also have the opportunity to compare your own work to Andy's — which should make it clear that he is the master.

Carter Ratcliff, of Art in America, among other things, has written of Warhol, "His portraits lead us to the edge of sheer impossibility and beyond. No one, not even Debbie Harry, can be as glamorous as Andy's Debbie Harry. Realizing this, we step over the edge, back into the real world." [1] It would be a fitting conclusion, if Ratcliff weren't writing about the paintings. But I can't help but feel this quote lay its touch upon the photographic work as well. If you haven't already, go see Edie Sedgwick, and see if you agree.

  1. Carter Ratcliff, "Looking Good: Andy Warhol's Utopian Portraiture", in Andy Warhol Portraits, ed. Tony Shafrazi, (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007), 21.

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