Andy Warhol's SUPERNOVA explodes at the Walker

By Christina Houghton

Before the sleep-deprived nights of finals begin and the bone-chilling temperatures freeze your adventurous inclinations, allow yourself one last escapade: ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962-1964. Simply spend an hour at this Walker exhibition–small in size yet impressive in scope–you’ll feel rejuvenated by the intriguing theme of celebrity and disaster, if not by Warhol’s (almost disturbingly) vibrant palette. This four-room exhibition brings together 26 of Warhol’s most celebrated paintings, including “Marilyn Diptych” (1962) and “Twelve Electric Chairs” (1964-1965). It focuses on work produced between the seminal years of 1962 to 1964, when Warhol first experimented with the transition from hand-painted canvases to photo-silkscreen, a technique that he both pioneered and popularized. In many ways, Warhol’s use of silkscreen creates a mechanical sterility, literally removing the artistic hand.

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it,” Warhol once said.

What can one decipher about the essential Andy Warhol from the current Walker exhibition?

Firstly, its spotlight on American celebrity culture highlights Warhol’s fascination with the phenomena of superstardom, a topic well suited for America’s first true “celebrity artist.” By creating works on an exaggerated scale, Warhol responded to the public’s obsession with the celebrity. “Elvis I and II” (1963), for example, depicts four larger-than-life reproductions of Elvis Presley, figures that intentionally dwarf the spectator, creating meaning through disproportion.

Warhol’s use of repetition in this and other works mimics the ubiquitous presence of celebrity in American popular culture. “Marilyn Diptych” (1962) resembles a shrine to the movie icon, achieving the same effect by reproducing 50 well-known Marilyn images. This piece’s intense hues emphasize the artifice of the commercialized and commodified facet of celebrity.

Secondly, the spectator gets a sense of Warhol’s interest in tragedy. For instance, Warhol became interested in Marilyn Monroe only after she committed suicide in 1962. Shortly afterwards, Warhol made more than 40 paintings of the famous figure using the same black-and-white publicity still. His interest in Jacqueline Kennedy was similarly grounded in tragedy, burgeoning after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The impressive work “Sixteen Jackies” (1964) juxtaposes images of a smiling and na’ve Jackie with those depicting a stunned and grieving woman. The composition forces the viewer to examine the intersections between celebrity, tragedy and the ways in which print media informs these age-old conceptions.

The last two rooms of the exhibition further explore the themes of tragedy and disaster, showcasing somber subjects such as the electric chair, scenes from 1963 race riots and gruesome images of car accidents. Warhol poses the question to the viewer: What do the surfaces of these paintings communicate? “Twelve Electric Chairs” (1964-1965) multiplies the morbid image of the electric chair, implying a critique of the death penalty and the mechanization of the singular intonations of life. Yet, Warhol’s use of vibrant and varied colors seems to satirize the gloomy choice of subject.

ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA merits a trip to the Walker. The exhibition offers an engaging, but manageable, perspective into an important moment in the artist’s life and work. The Walker showcases the paintings that epitomize, in technique and subject matter, Warhol’s groundbreaking mechanical artistry.

Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962-1964 (open through February 26, 2006) $5 with student ID. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., closed Monday.