‘Andy Warhol: Portraits’ at Phoenix Art Museum, 3/4

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Warhol Phoenix Museum

The exhibition showcases the ad work Warhol did in the 1950s, his early commissions and photo-booth portraits in the ’60s, and his prime commissions and celebrity portraits in the ’70s and ’80s.

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Pop artist Andy Warhol said in 1968.

Today, his prescience is almost eerie, with the global scrutiny of celebrities, reality programming rampant on television and social media sending unknowns into international fame in mere seconds.

Warhol’s fascination with and eventual inclusion in the world of celebrity is documented in “Andy Warhol: Portraits,” opening this week at the Phoenix Art Museum, It features more than 200 works from the 1940s through the ’80s, including his world-famous depictions of the Hollywood elite, such as Marilyn Monroe and Prince, commissions of dignitaries and rarely seen sketches from art school.

“You see this fascination Warhol had with fame, with celebrities, that he had since childhood,” said Jerry Smith, curator of American art for the Phoenix Art Museum. “In turn he became a celebrity himself, and one of the most recognizable artists of all time.”

According to Artnet, a New York-based researcher and principal resource for online art auctions, Warhol remains the top-selling artist in the world, with $653.2 million in sales over the past year. His “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” is the most expensive painting — it sold for $105 million in 2013 — and at last year’s Christie’s Art Auction, his “Triple Elvis” fetched $81.9 million and “Four Marlons” went for $69.6 million.

More than 25 years after his death, Warhol remains one of the most influential contemporary artists of all time, with his brightly hued style frequently mimicked. He not only marketed his subjects through his art, he also branded himself and blurred the lines between high and low art.

“He did portraits of Nelson Rockefeller in the same fashion that he portrayed a bottle of Coca Cola,” Smith said. “It’s almost as if his works were the brand for that person. But the humanity of the people always came through anyway.”

The exhibition comes from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where it debuted in 2010. Warhol, a Pittsburgh native, drew his first self-portrait in high school when he was 16.

“Portraiture was one of Warhol’s signature tactics in terms of art making, and he depicted people from all walks of life throughout his career,” said Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum. “We always wanted to do a portraiture exhibition … and this really looks at all the decades of Warhol’s career and the portraits he made each decade.”

The exhibition showcases the ad work Warhol did in the 1950s, his early commissions and photo-booth portraits in the 1960s, followed by his prime commissions and celebrity portraits in the ’70s and ’80s.

“It shows he was constantly innovating with new modes of display,” Shiner said. “Almost all of Warhol’s paintings find their origins in photographs using all modes of photography, from photo-booth machines to regular-format cameras to Polaroids, both regular and large format. He was always finding new ways of capturing imagery and new ways of making paintings.”

Smith is most excited about Warhol’s early line drawings on paper in pencil and ink from the 1940s to the ’50s, all related to portraiture.

“Before the 1950s, Warhol was learning his craft as a student working in sketchbooks, making drawings,” Smith said. “He sketched seated male nude torsos, and people can also see an early interest in movie stars with drawings of Geraldine Page and Joan Crawford.”

Smith said viewers will notice Warhol’s signature style in these student sketches.

“They were more or less contour drawings, and they are not a classical academic approach with shading and modeling,” he said. “You get just the basics, which is the exact approach he used in later paintings starting with a photograph. Nobody has crow’s feet in Warhol portraits. That interest in eliminating detail so early in his student sketches is so identifiable in his later larger works.”

Patrons are sure to immediately recognize many of the famous faces, but some might not be familiar to a younger generation.

“I suspect most people will recognize Prince and Sylvester Stallone, but probably not Neil Sedaka,” Smith said. “A lot of people might not recognize Grace Jones but think she’s really cool looking. It will also get people wondering who Warhol would make a portrait of today, and who will still be famous in 20 years?”

One of Warhol’s last commissions is part of the exhibition. Collector Alexander Iolas asked Warhol to create a group of works based on Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” in 1984, and the artist produced more than 100. One interpretation, a 15-foot-long black-light painting, will be on display.

Also included in the exhibit is a glimpse at Warhol’s work as a filmmaker. He created “screen tests” in the ’60s, in which he would ask famous and non-famous subjects to sit in front of a camera, as still as possible, for minutes at a time. The subjects almost always got uncomfortable, and the shoots were almost an endurance test. His 1963 film “Sleep” depicted his close friend, John Giorno, sleeping for six hours.

“We are actually going to have a booth where people can sit in front of a camera,” said Amada Cruz, director of the Phoenix Art Museum. “The videos will be posted to a microsite and can be accessed online. It’s up to people what they want to do, but they’ll quickly see how hard it is to sit still for even a few minutes.”

Smith said many people will relate to “Portraits” because it’s rooted in pop culture.

“He seemed to foreshadow many things that are prevalent in society today,” Smith said. “He had a TV show on MTV for a while. The idea of a selfie, if Warhol was alive today, it would probably be called a ‘Warhol-ogram.’ Reality television and the idea of turning a camera on and seeing what happens, that’s exactly what he was doing with films. He would have eaten up the Kardashians.”

Cruz said the exhibit will encourage people to think about our celebrity-obsessed culture. Also, it’s just fun.

“We want people, and it’s just one of those shows where you can bring your kids, make your own portraits and learn a little bit,” Cruz said. “You think about selfies and the media culture we live in, and Warhol was doing this way back in the ’60s. It gets you to think a little bit more deeply about the world we live in.”

‘Andy Warhol: Portraits’

When: Wednesday, March 4-Sunday, June 21. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Where: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Admission: $12-$15; $10 for students; $6 for ages 6-17; free for age 5 or younger and for museum members.
Details: 602-257-1880, phxart.org.

Exploding Plastic Inevitable:

Andy Warhol Celebration Party
When: 6-10 p.m. Friday, March 6.
Where: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Admission: Free to attend the party, $2 to view the exhibition.
Details: 602-257-1880, phxart.org.

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I Love Warhol

I Love Warhol