WASHINGTON — Most people might find a repetitive routine monotonous.
Not Andy Warhol.
For the late pop art master, repetition offered a wealth of creative possibilities.
And, as two exhibitions at separate Washington art institutions reveal, Warhol’s artistic take on repetition varied widely, from inventive interpretations of tabloid journalism to moody abstraction.
The first show, at the National Gallery of Art, spotlights Warhol’s fascination with the news and the trappings of fame.
“Warhol: Headlines” presents about 80 works in a variety of media, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, film and video, at the National Gallery through Jan. 2.
The exhibit proves a visual feast, celebrating Warhol’s colorful spin on the ephemeral, superficial and repetitive nature of the news.
Warhol’s witticism “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” assumes a new connotation in this show. Not everyone could become the subject of a headline. But through his headlines art, Warhol could extend the elusive nature of fame well beyond the fleeting time frame in his famous quip.
Warhol’s background as an award-winning commercial illustrator in the 1950s drew him almost magnetically to the showy and repetitive nature of consumer tabloid news. His first serious foray into headline art took shape in drawings and paintings during the early 1960s, in which he experimented with cropping and varying text size to generate a dramatic effect.
Four early pieces based on tabloid pages span the tabloid headlines gamut. Two based on a New York Post front from Nov. 3, 1961, “A Boy for Meg,” hail the celebrity birth of a first child to Princess Margaret of Britain, with one a partially sketched-in casein and wax crayon on linen, and the other a filled-out and finished painting. Another Post front taps the other end of the news spectrum. In “129 Die in Jet” (1962), Warhol tacks to the equally splashy way that tabloids report the dire and catastrophic.
A Daily News edition dated March 29, 1962, appears as a double front acrylic and pencil painting. On the right side, “Eddie Fisher Breaks Down; In Hospital Here; Liz in Rome” blares over a painted image of Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor. The opposite side shows a sports front with New York Yankees and New York Mets score headlines topping a quartet of pictures unrelated to baseball.
Some works become a design extravaganza in high key color at times. The headline and accompanying text with “LBJ to Kremlin; Y’All Come” in “Daily News” (c. 1967), for instance, virtually disappear under graphic floral-like patterns in red, green, golden yellow and lavender that stream from the top to lower left of the screen print on paper. Moreover, the pattern is printed backward and upside down over the page.
The notion of repetition rises to the fore in Warhol’s “Flash — November 22, 1963” (1968), a commissioned piece that chronicles the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Roughly two dozen framed silkscreen prints alternate between superimposed newsprint images based on the tragic event in Dallas that day.
A virtuoso of two-dimension art, Warhol worked effectively with 3-D as well. His “Abstract Sculpture” (1983) offers yet another interpretation of consumer news, with a screen print on crumpled Mylar based on Page 3 of the New York Post detailing the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983. While the content rings of a disastrous event, Warhol’s appreciation of the ephemeral nature of the product lends itself to the kind of discard average urbanites pass and see almost daily, and never gives a second thought.
Warhol could keep viewers guessing too with his headline creations.
The headline on one half-sheet print reads “Judge Blast ‘Lynch’” (1983). But ‘Lynch’ who, or what? By omitting “Mob” from the headline, Warhol created a space for the viewer to fill in his or her interpretation of the composition.
Later works also include Warhol’s headline collaborations with artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring from the 1980s.
Warhol’s teaming with Basquiat re-instilled a color charge into his efforts. A renewed vibrancy in his art also occurred through a series of New York Post covers from 1985 with ringing headlines about the love life and tawdry photos of then rising pop music star Madonna. Warhol went to town with restructuring the pages, while Haring added his own distinctive flair.
Nearby, a video presentation offers an entirely different take on Warhol’s artistic relations with the news.
Three Warhol “screen tests” involve a sitter reading a newspaper. Outtakes of interviews Warhol conducted on his cable television shows, “Andy Warhol’s T.V.” and “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes on MTV,” likewise run on a video board, and include an interval with Haring discussing his use of tabloid headlines in his street art interventions.
Although Warhol worked across media, photography provided the foundation for much of his art. The final gallery of the show highlights 20 of Warhol’s photographs, and a unique body of works in which he recalibrated his view of recurrence. The “sewn” photographs feature multiple prints of the same black-and-white image, often of a newspaper box or container, stitched together in a gridlike fashion. These pieces produce an undulating effect, and underscore the importance of newspapers in Warhol’s daily life.
As one exits the exhibit, a tabloid front enlargement offers one final headline — and a fitting tribute to Warhol.
A New York Post headline reads, “Andy Warhol Dead at 58,” from an edition that hit newsstands after word of Warhol’s untimely death from complications caused by gallbladder surgery on Feb. 22, 1987.
Across the National Mall from the National Gallery, the second exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden provides a very different perspective of Warhol’s approach to repetition.
Unlike the “Headlines” display, “Andy Warhol: Shadows” has only a single piece — a grand work composed of 102 silkscreened and hand-painted canvases.
Created by Warhol in 1978, each panel draws from a photograph of shadows inside the artist’s studio.
Viewing the edge-to-edge canvases in succession along the museum’s distinctive circular architecture for almost 450 feet produces a cinematic quality.
Alternating sequences of color transition from high- to low-key, and back. At first, the shadow shapes appear almost identical. But after spending time with the panels, you find they’re hardly uniform and possess subtle changes in positive and negative effect.
First exhibited in 1979, “Shadows” had not been seen as a complete group until it went on view at the Dia Art Foundation in New York City in 1998.
“Andy Warhol: Shadows” remains on view at the Hirshhorn Museum until Jan. 15.