Political Andy?

By GREG COOK  |  November 6, 2008

Warhol's work on the portfolio appears to have been interrupted when he was shot in his studio in 1968. Most of the work here postdates that attack. Afterward, he backed away from his wild and crazy days; he spent the '70s courting the rich, famous, and powerful for portrait commissions. Saying that " 'business' was the best art," he came to average 50 to 100 commissions a year; the portraits here include Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and the shah of Iran. There are vitrines with letters from Nixon (inviting Warhol's recommendations) and Robert Kennedy (thanking him for work on an art committee).

Warhol's '60s work tended to be black-and-white photos reproduced atop a single color or, as in Marilyn, a black-and-white photo gaudily colorized. In the '70s, he went more Marilyn, more Baroque, laying traced drawings, floating color swatches, and dumb-ass faux Expressionist brushwork atop and under screenprinted photos. A lot of this stuff feels slight and shallow — partly on purpose, I suspect, and partly as a result of mass production.

On his own, Warhol painted Golda Meir, Vladimir Lenin, Ronald Reagan, and Mao. The 1972 portraits of the Chinese leader — exhibited here atop Warhol's matching Mao wallpaper — were Warhol's monumental work of the '70s. They get me wondering again about his political engagement.

Warhol noted the correspondences between his own repeated portraits and the ubiquitous Mao portraits around China, which sat at the confluence of politics, propaganda, and celebrity. His suite of 10 Mao screenprints on paper, with varying hot and cool color combos, is sharp. On the one hand, his riffs seem a send-up of the omnipresent Mao. On the other, his repetition drains all emotion out of Mao's expression on the way to (perhaps) plumbing a deep political truth about the dictator's image. In the end it seems to be about a surveillance state — wherever we turn, Mao is watching us.

Brandeis's Rose Art Museum is presenting "Invisible Rays: The Surrealism Legacy," which digs out Surrealist and Surrealist-inspired works from the institution's collection. The big names are here — Dalí, de Chirico, Ernst, Magritte, Miró, Tanguy, Picasso — but most of the works are modest. Well, except for Roberto Matta's tour de force 20-foot-wide 1956 abstract painting, which looks something like floating space stations.

The real highlights are the later Surrealist-inspired stuff. A meaty Robert Rauschenberg combine. Little Joseph Cornell naked-lady collages. An assemblage resembling a cracked-up bedroom wall by San Francisco Beat-scene artist Bruce Connor, a pioneer of this sort of thing whose work is rarely seen on the East Coast. Fred Tomaselli's interlace pattern of paint and hemp leaves. And Gregory Crewdson's staged photo of a lady in a nightgown floating in a flooded living room.

The show's installation is inspired by Marcel Duchamp's designs for a 1938 Paris Surrealist exhibit where visitors were given flashlights to view paintings in a dim gallery with 1200 coal sacks hung from the ceiling (and coal dust falling on everyone's heads). For a 1942 New York Surrealist show, Duchamp spiderwebbed the gallery with a mile of string. Rose Director Michael Rush hangs everything in a gallery dimly lit by descending bare light bulbs, provides visitors flashlights, and scatters red leaves over the floor. The gimmick makes some work hard to see, but it's amusing and feels right on.

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Related: Slideshow: Final moments at the Rose?, Wizards and masterpieces, Photos: “Andy Warhol: A Recent Acquisition Exhibition” at Bannister, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Currier Museum of Art,  More more >
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