At The Blanton Museum
by Ellen Heck
Viewers become aware of books as collections of content that can be packaged and repackaged. And then that very packaging turns right around to itself become content.
Three galleries and a reading room take viewers decade by decade through Andy Warhol’s lifelong relationship with books. Organized by the Andy Warhol Museum and showing at the Blanton through January, Warhol by the Book is the first exhibition in the United States to examine the Pop icon’s influences and work through this format. It’s a bright and accessible presentation, which is uncommon for a book-centric show. The exhibition includes anything in book form, inspired by books or writers, or related to something that became a book. Divided into decades, each gallery presents a varied display of bound paper in glass cases, large drawings, paintings and prints related to these, quotes on the wall and touch screens that allow readers to flip through digitized versions of several artist books. Large iconic prints and canvases saturate the room like signage for the smaller spreads, sketches, letters and snapshots. Motifs and people become more significant as they resurface in different forms throughout the decades. Viewers become aware of books as collections of content that can be packaged and repackaged. And then that very packaging turns right around to itself become content.
Two galleries of his earliest and latest work bookend a central silver-painted room dedicated to the rising stardom, experimentation and genre redefinition of Warhol’s 60s. This homage to the foil-wrapped “Factory”—Warhol’s New York studio, production center and site of celebrity-enhanced “happenings”—contains Screen Tests, a wall-encompassing video projection of interchanging slightly moving video portraits in black and white. These are vaguely recognizable young people, famous from another era. I am struck by the irony that it was only today, after seeing the new iPhone update which by default saves images as Harry Potteresque animated moments, that this type of portrait seems suddenly so normal. Nearby, there is a small book, Screen Tests: A Diary, in which selected stills from this video are printed on transparent vellum mimicking the film. Careful consideration of materials and convention-defying concept-linked choices are everywhere in this room: a screen print on silver Mylar of a still from Blue Movie, a few Marilyn prints manufactured in the Factory, a Pop art pop-up book with explosive paper engineering and a book of transcribed voice recordings of celebrities on amphetamines in which the transcribers are left to guess at the spelling of unintelligible words and typos are embraced as an added texture in the work. There is also Flash, an edition of prints packaging an American tragedy. The series was sold with screenprinted images of the Kennedy assassination inserted into folders printed with text mimicking the wire-service news reports of the event, all of it encased in a transparent plastic box. I left this gallery with a renewed appreciation for Warhol’s commercial genius. The exhibition calls the work from this period “arguably the most creative and inventive of his life.”
In the gallery displaying work from the 50s, viewers are presented with the origins of both the artist and his concepts later multiplied in the Factory. Several artist books, commercial collections, letters and invitations illustrate Warhol’s prolific early years as a student and commercial artist. He collaborates with classmates, lovers, and his mother, whose whimsical calligraphy shows up on several book jackets. His non-commercial work at this time revolved around spoofing and riffing from contemporary trends with people he enjoys: Wild Raspberries is a play on elaborate French cooking books with Suzie Frankfurt; A Gold Book is a decadent series of drawings inspired by a trip to Thailand with Charles Lisanby, who was also the subject of sketches for Boy Book, an unfinished series of drawings inspired by Jean Cocteau. His commercial illustration includes several book jackets and a collection of now iconic shoe illustrations that ran in weekly advertisements in The New York Times. As a necessity of the business, Warhol is exposed to printmaking, the technique of creating multiples through color-separated layers—a process he would elevate from an almost exclusively commercial medium to “high art” over the course of a decade. On the wall in vinyl lettering, the exhibition excerpts Warhol’s quote, “I’ve always been fascinated by people who can put things down on paper, and I liked to listen for new ways to say old things and old ways to say new things.”
This flip-flop of presentation and content was the consistent focus of Warhol’s life and work over four decades. Displaying work from the 70s and 80s, the latest gallery is filled with large-scale portraits of famous faces: Mao, Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote, Dolly Parton, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol. They’re all there because they managed to say something old in a new way or new in an old way. Stein’s portrait is part of a series of “Jewish Geniuses.” Goethe’s colorful likeness was a commission by an art dealer with the hope of revitalizing the writer’s work with contemporary cover art for new editions. Andersen’s portrait shares a portfolio with reproductions of three of his own paper cutouts; apparently, the writer would tell stories to groups of children while cutting paper throughout the narrative, revealing the finished piece at the end. Each of the portraits in the room celebrates someone who created content and for this reason has become Warhol’s content in turn. Nothing illustrates this quite so literally as two of the 24 drawings and two paintings Warhol made of his own commercially available book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). Both titled Still Life, these odes include objects that reference Warhol’s life clustered around the book, which is closed and standing upright displaying the front cover and spine. It is hard not to see the similarities between this “still life” and the nearby portraits of famous people. Book covers and faces are symbols of content, even to viewers who haven’t read the books or known the people.
The arrangement of the galleries by decade in a circular wing of the Blanton allows the viewer to take a chronological or reverse-chronological tour of Warhol’s work as it relates to books. I entered the exhibition in the last decades, worked back through time, and returned to the last decades again with a new awareness of the ways in which the artist had changed and remained the same. I left the show still thinking about his complex relationship to Truman Capote. Warhol’s bold double portraits of Capote with small black and white photos shot for reference were made in 1979 and are displayed in the gallery of his latest work. The information cards detail the young artist’s early admiration for the writer, whose “flamboyance and confidence” had captured his interest as a child. Warhol based the drawings of his first New York exhibition on Capote’s writings, “with the express desire to connect with the author,” and it worked. Warhol received a coveted invitation to Capote’s Black and White Ball, and by the 70s the two men were close friends, “arguably the biggest openly gay celebrities in the world—each aware of their own prominence, pioneers in their respective fields, and cornerstones of New York’s creative class.” Back in the gallery of Warhol’s earliest work, a thin Truman Capote paperback, the artist’s own copy, is turned over to reveal the thumbnail portrait of the young author looking directly at the reader with a “smoldering” gaze. The viewer can empathize with the even younger, anonymous Warhol, smitten by a celebrity who does and is many of the things Warhol aspires to do and be. Capote’s penetrating gaze looks out from one copy of thousands throughout the country and yet so personally captures this one boy’s admiration. Thirty years later, it is fitting that Capote looks straight into Warhol’s own lens.
Short and sweet: Warhol by the Book chronicles the artist’s lifelong fascination with the reflexive relationship between content and presentation. Through the format of the book—book as inspiration, book as mass distribution, book as documentation, the exhibition lays out Warhol’s constant recombination of content as presentation, presentation as content.