Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2 June – 17 September
According to curator Douglas Fogle, the word disaster can be traced back to a late-sixteenth-century Italian word for ‘ill-starred event’. It’s only fitting then that the curator has turned to this etymology to title his major survey of Andy Warhol’s early works. Warhol called his silkscreened paintings of celebrities and suicides, car crashes, race riots and other tragedies his ‘disaster paintings’. Fogle, for his part, has pegged his hard-edged show with a dash of Dashiell Hammett – Andy Warhol: Dark Star.
An exhibition of more than 100 works in various media, including film, installation, sculpture, photography, archival material and, of course, silkscreen paintings, Fogle’s Warhol show bracingly concentrates on the perma-fresh works the artist created during the first decade of his career. Featured most prominently are three dozen paintings he made as he first ransacked the leavings of commercial culture. Nowhere in evidence is late Warhol: the frightwig-wearing, money-obsessed, pop-culture mercenary who made silkscreened paintings of dollar bills, accepted portrait commissions from Imelda Marcos and appeared on the 1970s–80s sitcom The Love Boat.
From an early fascination with consumer images – in 1962 Warhol hand-painted a tiny image of a us Air Mail stamp and also executed a corporate-scale portrait of 100 Campbell Soup cans – to his dark obsession with Hollywood fame and the sort of infamy that attaches to gruesome images of anonymous death, Dark Star charts the early development of the artist’s career through a central insight: the idea that affectless-looking art matches the alienation produced by mechanical reproduction to a T. During the early 1960s, Warhol mined advertising, tabloid newspapers and glossy magazines to capture imperial America’s mercurial zeitgeist. A half-century later, many of those same images crackle with an energy that can only be termed enduringly voyeuristic.
Starting with two hand-painted canvases – a 1961 number titled Where is Your Rupture? and the 1962 painting 129 Die In Jet! (cribbed directly from the New York Daily News at the behest of curator Henry Geldzahler, this last painting kicked off the artist’s representations of death) – Dark Star demonstrates Warhol’s conflation of fame and destruction. By the time he graduated to repeated images of Marilyn Monroe painted in the months following her death, Warhol had uncovered the lasting connection between Eros and Thanatos, but also the incredible timeliness of his serial silkscreen process.
‘I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper; 129 die,’ Warhol said in a 1963 interview that Fogle cites in both the exhibition wall text and the catalogue. ‘I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been death... That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.’
About the latter, Warhol was clearly wrong, as Fogle’s often brilliant juxtapositions of the artist’s paintings attest. Take the faceoff between several dutifully banal Campbell Soup can paintings and Tunafish Disaster (1963), a silver and black silkscreened painting of 15 cans of supermarket tuna and the guileless visages of two unlucky ladies who had succumbed to botulism poisoning – per the Newsweek photo caption Warhol repeats in the title. If these serial images perfectly mimic the numbing reiteration of death available through the modern media, they also point to America’s dark side: an epic land of destruction where, often as not, celebrities and everyday folks equally and sordidly get it in the neck in the end.
First published in the September 2017 issue of ArtReview