Tucked away in the corner of the second floor of Corcoran Gallery of Art, “Shooting Stars” is a small exhibit that provokes big ideas. Open from Feb. 9 to April 21, 2013, the exhibit features early Hollywood publicity stills and portraits by Andy Warhol, and it explores the concepts of fame and celebrity over the span of more than half a century.
Viewers first encounter the works of Warhol in a cozy, dimly lit room. Known to many as “the Father of Pop Art,” Warhol delivers a whole new interpretation of fame. He famously said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” and his liberal notion of celebrity is reflected in his photographs. In tune with his statement on fame, Warhol casts beautiful but unknown faces in his works, and by having them employ the postures typical of Hollywood’s publicity shots, he transforms these “unidentified” men and women into public personalities.
Warhol also highlights the idea that the fame or reputation of celebrity is often the result of public perception. In his Polaroid shots, he often had his subjects — including famous stars like Jackie Curtis — put on extremely heavy white makeup that hid their true complexions but creates a sense of heightened glamor. Also shown in the exhibit are his altered versions of the portraits of Ted Kennedy and Ina Ginsburg. Using his favorite technique of screen-printing, Warhol retains only the silhouette of the figure. Placed side by side with their original Polaroid shots, these manipulated portraits display a clearly transformed personality, reflecting Warhol’s perception of his subject. For example, the silhouette of Ted Kennedy, outlined with blue and red diamond dust, conveys a very pronounced air of authority and confidence.
Crossing to the other room, viewers will find themselves in a completely different atmosphere, surrounded by black and white portraits of stars in dignified postures typical of the Golden Age of Hollywood. These photos are the products of publicity campaigns launched by major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers in the 1920s, presenting stars as “picture personalities” to an enthusiastic audience enthralled by the glamor of superstars. The curator’s notes next to the portraits, however, reveal a darker side to the apparent glitter.
The personal lives of many of the stars are often laden with misfortunes or are associated with such unhealthy habits as sexual or substance abuse, which in some cases lead to premature deaths. One can perhaps trace these tragedies to the great pressure or emptiness brought about by sudden fame, exposing the detachment of “public personalities” from reality. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s story struck me as the best example of the fickleness of fame. Once a well-loved silent comedian star, he was unjustly accused of manslaughter in the 1920s and his works were banned. Although he was eventually acquitted, his name became shrouded by the scandal, and his career waned.
Shooting Stars is indeed an appropriate title for the exhibit — fame and publicity are just like shooting stars, glamorous but short-lived. All in all, Shooting Stars is an inspiring and well-organized exhibit and definitely worth the Corcoran’s entrance fee.
I also highly recommend the gallery as a whole. The largest private art museum in Washington D.C., the gallery has a fine arrangement and exquisite interior design. It houses permanent collections focusing on American art and features exhibitions of contemporary and early American art. Just a short walk from both Farragut West and Farragut North stations, the Corcoran Gallery is the ideal place to spend an afternoon.