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Warhol Live

The True King of Pop

  • de Young Museum
    50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Map)
    +1 415.863.3330

Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes are perhaps the most common images associated with Andy Warhol, along with his four-panel, boldly colored portraits of the stars. However, his fascination with (and substantial creation of) popular culture led his artistic experimentation into numerous other realms, including music, film, TV, and the printed word. Warhol Live, at the De Young until May 17th, is a sprawling exhibition of Warhol’s forays into these pockets of pop culture, exposing the true extent of his fascination and involvement with all manner of media.

The exhibition begins with Warhol’s giant prints of a gunslinging Elvis, the sexy, smiling, Marilyn, and collages revealing his Judy Garland/Liza Minelli fixation. These icons are followed by a room filled with album cover designs and theatre program collections. Early covers for albums such as Toscanini’s William Tell Overture and Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish portray wonderful, bold line drawings in many ways reminiscent of Picasso, while his later album covers for artists like Billy Squier, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and John Lennon reveal a style closer to that bright, layered pop art look for which Warhol is so famous.

Included in this collection of covers are his innovative interactive albums involving a peelable banana (for The Velvet Underground and Nico) and a zippable zipper (the cover for The Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” album) -- very cutting edge at the time and still not very common. Records from Warhol’s personal collection are juxtaposed with these, including those of Grace Jones, Elvis, Eartha Kitt, Chopin, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, and Tchaikovsky, exhibiting his interests beyond popular culture.

Further rooms (each separated by velvet curtains) take us deeper and deeper into Warhol’s artistic experimentations. In one room, his association with musician John Cage manifests itself in a collection of works that explore Cage’s famous enthusiasm for repetition and silence. Here, one can view Warhol’s five hour and twenty-one minute film of his lover sleeping (entitled, appropriately, “Sleep”) or a large painting of 210 repetitions of a “This Side Up” sign, which, upon closer examination, reveals that each repetition is slightly different. While the monotony may seem boring at first glance, it does force the viewer to look closely and admit to the difference in repetition.

Elsewhere are pictures and works from Warhol’s Silver Factory period (1964-1967- this includes the soup cans and Brillo boxes), episodes from his television shows (such as "Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes", which ran from 1985-1987), and covers from his Inter/VIEW magazine. However, perhaps one of the most interesting (and interactive) aspects of the exhibition occurs quite a ways into the maze: “Exploding Plastic Inevitable".

Warhol’s activities as a producer involved the promotion of the band The Velvet Underground, which culminated in the Wagnerian “total artwork” experiment of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” -- a multi-media assault on the senses involving the music of The Velvet Underground, disco balls, strobe lights, film, and slides of polka-dots, stripes, and checkerboards sliding around the room. An utterly dizzying and disorienting experience, this small recreation of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” is truly bizarre but seems to capture Warhol’s singular style.

While the exhibition is extensive and covers an enormous range of media and time periods, its organization is a little odd. Each room is titled with a theme such as “Fame” or “Night-Clubbing", yet the collection of works in each room does not always seem to correspond to the theme. For example, in the “Jagger” section are, of course, many photos and prints of Mick Jagger. However, also on display in this space are prints from the “Ladies and Gentlemen” series (1975), apparently portraits of African-American drag queens.

It is unclear how these fit in with the Jagger theme, unless it is a commentary somehow on Jagger’s sometimes quite feminine dress and mannerisms, captured in Warhol’s works. There are several other spaces where the connection of the works to the stated theme is vague. Not all attendees of the exhibition are Warhol aficionados, and it would be helpful in some cases to make the connections more readily apparent for the casual observer or Warhol beginner.

However, this wide-ranging display of Warhol’s flirtation with numerous media -- album covers, film posters, silkscreen prints, films, TV shows, magazine issues, program covers, photographs, and even submersion into the experiential phenomena, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” -- gives a taste of the true extent of Warhol’s artistic reach.

DeYoung Museum
Now through May 17th
Tickets: $20 (free for FAMSF members)