Andy Warhol currently seems to be having a moment in the art world. In addition to the National Gallery’s ongoing exhibition “Warhol: Headlines,” the work of the pop art guru is making headlines across the pond, where the Gagosian Gallery London is featuring a show of his portraits of French sex icon Brigitte Bardot. Back in D.C., the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution’s branch of contemporary art, is mounting a four-month exhibit of a series of his silkscreensentitled “Shadows.”
Having far surpassed his famous saying that, “In the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes,” Warhol has certainly maintained his renown as one of the most influential and important artists of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, his incorporation of icons from popular culture into his work and the exploitation of consumerist themes of banality and repetition marked a radical departure from conventional notions about what constituted fine art and, as a result, decisively altered the course of modern art.
Appropriately, “Headlines” encompasses many of these characteristic concepts of popular culture, bringing together around 80 lesser-known works from the artist’s oeuvre in a thematic grouping that has never before been considered. Varying in media from ballpoint ink on paper to oil on canvas to video installations, the works displayed here are united by the motif of the newspaper headline and its elements of sensationalism, celebrity and disaster that fascinated Warhol and informed his creations throughout the course of his career.
“A Boy for Meg (2),” one of the few works that is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, acts as a starting point for the exhibit as the first use of a headline in one of Warhol’s paintings. This and the other early headline works like it are more or less straightforward reproductions of specific tabloid pages, the originals of which are conveniently displayed in cases in the center of the rooms. The role of the artist here is equivalent to that of a curator or editor: selecting a headline and then reworking it by embellishing a story to heighten the sense of drama or altering the composition to focus on a particular section of the tabloid page. Interestingly, some of these works contain misspellings of certain words (“sieze” instead of “seize,” or “Princton” instead of “Princeton”), though it is uncertain whether these mistakes were deliberate or not. At times, Warhol inserts himself or his friends into the stories to assert his role in the creation of the work.
Gradually, this element of personalization begins to dissolve from the substance of the headline stories he depicts, though this shift is accompanied by a maturation of the distinguishable characteristics of the “Warhol brand.” Instead of the early austere, plain style achieved through graphite or ballpoint ink on paper, his later headlines incorporate hallmark Warhol-esque elements, such as the eye-popping Day-Glo colors for which he is still so well known. Here, Warhol becomes more author than editor, with a distinct voice and assertive message.
Ultimately, Warhol’s obsession with the sensational side of the news media stems from the same principle that inspired his Campbell’s soup cans: the relationship between the commodity and the consumer. “Flash — November 22, 1963,” a portfolio of screen prints relating to the assassination of President Kennedy, particularly emphasizes this aspect of the role of the headline. Rather than focusing on the humanity of the event, the inescapable barrage of media coverage, as presented by Warhol, seems fatiguing in its relentless pursuit of an emotional response.
All too aware of this darker capitalistic side of news media, Warhol remains relevant to an understanding of today’s headlines, which have evolved over the years in their method of delivery to the consumer yet seem remarkably similar in content to the news of the past. More than a mindless duplication of objects of popular culture, his headlines remind us of our own role in cycles of production and consumption and exhort the consumer to behave as responsibly as possible and to remain critical and vigilant in our daily interaction with these products of popular culture.
“Warhol: Headlines” is currently on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and runs until Jan. 2, 2012.