‘Still life with eel’ Oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches, by Marsden Hartley, 1917
It’s a strange mixture of modernist tradition, American iconoclasm, and tabloid fetishism that fuels the summer shows at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, all set upon a coastline as visually resplendent as anything they could ever put on the walls.
The primary focus this season is “Andy Warhol: American Icon,” a show that begins with a briefing of some of the pop artist’s signature images. There’s the Marilyn serigraphs (reprinted here from 1981 after the 1967 original), an acrylic silkscreen of the Campbell’s soup box, and some canvases printed to mimic the VIP drink tickets at Studio 54. Less detectably Warhol (and generally more interesting) is the screenprint “Electric Chair,” a shockingly bright image of death symbology, and “Mother and Child,” a screen portrait of a Native American woman in a sort of Hollywood cinematic scope.
In an annex, a large collection of black and white stills shifts the focus from artistic impact to the iconic. They come courtesy of Pat Hackett, a commercial art representative and old friend of Warhol’s who worked as his private photographer — almost like a paparazzo — for several years in the 1970s and ‘80s. Clustered chronologically like a family photo album (indeed, Hackett appears to have been functionally kin) the photos luxuriate on Warhol the celebrity, with him grinning awkwardly at parties next to cross-cultural celebrities like Rodney Dangerfield and Roberta Flack and lounging famously at the Factory, his communal home and production facility. Precious few have anything to do with art making.
It’s natural to wonder where are the photos that look deeper, into the assembly lines of Warhol’s massive art production or the sensational frissons of Factory parties. (The easy answer, given their R-rated content minimum, is: Nowhere near a tourist museum in picturesque Ogunquit.) But the show’s obsessive, shrine-like fixation also fits squarely into the mythos of Warhol, who understood that his own icon management and the perpetuation of celebrity was a higher-stakes extension of the mass-produced prints he made in his loft. Art stars are in no short supply nowadays, but the photo spread helps to remind us that in the cultural climate of the ‘70s, Andy was operating in terra far more incognita.
Anyone with a cursory interest in Warhol would likely be jazzed to see these images, and the large smattering of screenprints make a strong representative sample, or even introduction. However, Warhol’s impact and output were huge, and this show doesn’t quite evade the pitfall facing many of the low-context retrospectives that crop up about him, namely the practice of presenting pop art as little more than one man’s effort to spin the subjects of high art into something everyone can understand. It’s Warhol-lite. It might very well have been time for Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup, and Ted Kennedy to replace the lush coastlines and cherubic nymphs that transfixed visual artists of the past, but that’s not to overlook Warhol’s grander statements about the commercialism, perversity, and object-fetishism of postwar American culture.