Forget the temperatures outside. The Tampa Museum of Art is an oasis of cool this summer, thanks to “In Living Color: Andy Warhol and Contemporary Printmaking.”
This nationally traveling show explores Warhol’s influence on printmakers of his own era and those who followed, seen through the prism of color. Besides uber-cool Andy, the exhibit features a host of blue-chippers such as Chuck Close, Frank Stella, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring and Helen Frankenthaler. Also included is the influential color master Joseph Albers, whose investigations of chromatic interactions are both scientific and poetic.
Thought-provoking and beautifully installed in the Tampa museum’s high-ceilinged galleries, the exhibit also includes a few outliers. Loretta Bennett, one of the Gee’s Bend quilters who came to national attention some years back, is represented by a color etching called “Blues.” Her geometric print is an appealing patchwork of rectangular shapes in swimming-hole shades of blue and deep green.
“In Living Color” was organized by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. It contains more than 100 prints by 18 artists drawn from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his family foundation, based in Oregon.
The show’s organizers made a smart choice in surrounding vintage Warhols with the work of other artists whose prints ping and echo off his. To my eye, a little Warhol goes a long way. His work is so familiar and so deadpan ironic that it feels like dry ice-cold enough to burn, but quick to evaporate.
What Warhol did stunningly, however, was to take imagery from American advertising, mass media and pop culture and reflect it back at us, often to devastating effect. His pictorial vocabulary of electric chairs, car crashes, movie stars and political figures feels like a blunt indictment of the American propensity for violence, celebrity worship and relentless consumerism.
He transmitted these messages in screen prints that screamed with color. In his work of the 1960s and ‘70s, Warhol amped up the volume with combinations of hot pink, acid green, magenta, orange and tomato red. His use of highly saturated, artificial colors dissociated color from emotion, giving his work a mechanical look.
As a result of Warhol’s pioneering graphic work, said Tampa Museum of Art director Michael Tomor, many artists “reconsidered the print as a format,” taking it more seriously than they might have otherwise. “It’s all about the elevation of the fine art print,” he noted. “That’s the greatest influence of Warhol to be found in the show.”
Prints with attitude
“In Living Color” is loosely organized around the notions of emotion, experience, experimentation, subversion and attitude as exemplified in Warhol’s art. And if there was anything Andy Warhol had in spades, it was attitude.
His blowzy, Technicolor-on-steroids prints of Marilyn Monroe, 10 of which are included in the Tampa show, are case studies of how an image congeals into an icon through repetition and overexposure. His concerns are echoed nearby in the work of contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas.
She explores much the same stylistic territory as Warhol, but extends his observations about the nature of celebrity. Her pair of prints, called “When Ends Meet,” portrays two powerful women of color, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice.
Their features are thickly outlined, comic-book style, and bedazzled with hand-applied rhinestones. Oprah beams; Condoleezza scowls. They are women who have helped shape the world we live in by engaging in entertainment and politics at the highest levels, rather than merely being passive recipients of our gaze.
Thomas’s prints recall Warhol’s work through the use of glittery materials; he sprinkled diamond dust on some of his portraits of celebrities. Her tight cropping and focus on the women’s faces makes their images confrontational. Their faces are masks, not revealing quirks of personality that might be expressed in private.
Sheer beauty is not a quality immediately associated with Andy Warhol’s work. In the sections of the exhibit dealing with emotion and experience, his prints are accompanied by lushly beautiful works on paper made by other artists.
There’s a gorgeous trio of prints by Helen Frankenthaler, the Abstract Expressionist painter whose soaked and stained canvasses brought a lyrical sensibility to a male-dominated movement in the 1950s and ’60s. And it was exactly this type of personal sensitivity that Warhol reacted against in his aesthetic choices.
On view is one of her major works, a large color woodcut, “Madame Butterfly.” It was printed from 46 woodblocks on three sheets of paper. Frankenthaler’s soft, translucent shapes, modulated colors and subtly textured surface are the polar opposite of Warhol’s hard-edge forms and acid-tinged hues.
Not far away, three screen prints by Ross Bleckner join the conversation. Made in 1997, these abstract images from the series “Dream and Do” teem with amorphous, blooming forms. His cellular shapes perhaps allude to the AIDS virus and other biological threats to human life. Rendered in black and shades of fuchsia, blue, teal, yellow and pink, Bleckner’s indeterminate shapes have an underlying vibrancy to them, despite his dark subject matter.
It’s a good thing that the relationships between Warhol and the other artists in this exhibit are presented as a matter of visual affinities rather than direct relationships. Regardless of what the artists thought of one another or who influenced whom, their works engage in a fascinating visual dialogue. Color is such a fundamental element of art that most of them have something interesting to say about it.
Passion for prints
Businessman Jordan Schnitzer, reached by phone recently, said he began to collect art as a young teenager in the 1960s. He turned his acquisition focus to prints in the late 1980s. “The print world is so much more sane and often undervalued than the contemporary painting market,” he observed.
Today, Schnitzer has a collection of works on paper that numbers around 8,500 pieces by 250 artists. He envisions it as a lending library for qualified institutions. He has collaborated with dozens of museums to present work from his collection and hopes viewers will share his passion for it.
“Every one of these artists, they have a message, a message that’s burning inside them and needs to get out. They have the guts to rip open their soul and put it on the wall,” he said. “They speak to me and to you and to everyone else who will see this exhibition.”
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