Monterey Museum of Art mounts a pop art show unlike any the area’s ever seen.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The Monterey Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, Pop Icons: Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, opens this weekend.
We should just stop and consider this for a moment.
Andy Warhol. Roy Lichtenstein. At the Monterey Museum of Art. That’s the “pop art” mountain coming to Mohammed.
This is one of the highest profile art shows we’ve seen in a long time, and that it’s taking place in a venue that normally focuses on historical Monterey regional and California art is a sweet surprise. So, why now?
“Why not?” replies MMA’s executive director E. Michael Whittington, followed by a sonorous laugh that echoes inside MMA-La Mirada’s spacious Dart Gallery, where the work is showing. Then he offers a more practical answer: It’s what people want. Three years ago the museum surveyed patrons and found they wanted more solo artist shows and more nationally known artists.
“They want us to be more edgy,” says Whittington, “to take greater risks. Which we are so happy to hear.”
So that’s how we find ourselves in the company of one of Warhol’s iconic prints “Liz,” a color offset lithograph portrait of the film superstar (and one of Warhol’s friends) done in almost garish swaths of color. Or one of his famous Campbell’s condensed soup can color screen prints, “Onion made with beef stock.”
“[Pop art] caused us to look at pop culture in a new way,” Whittington says. “In borrowing everyday banal elements of life and elevating it to an art, it causes us to look at the world in a new way.”
Whittington cites Marcel Duchamp’s seminal submission of a urinal as a work of art in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition, as a precursor to Warhol’s realignment of our understanding, and acceptance, of art.
Warhol, despite the constant company of the rich and famous, seemed to hold on to an innocent and modest sense of simpleness, maybe one that took root in his Eastern European, working class, Byzantine Catholic childhood in Pittsburgh, Penn. There’s little irony to be detected in this passage from his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again):
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke… All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”
That’s a simple idea of accessibility as democracy, and it loses steam when it comes to bigger ticket items like health care and housing. But for his 1960s pop culture study period, Warhol focused on those smaller ticket items, like Brillo soap pads and celebrity magazines.
That leveling effect of mass production has significant precedent in the [Johannes] Gutenberg press, which put books in the hands of masses, and living examples like the wide-open Internet. It’s an idea that still has art currency, like in the recent Sand City exhibit of the famed Shepard Fairey, who, like Warhol did, excels at printmaking – making multiple copies of images.
“I think Warhol was important,” Fairey told the Weekly in August. “He broadened the conversation by using accessible tools… [like seminal underground ‘60s band] The Velvet Underground and Interview magazine. I want to make [the conversation] broader, too.”
How’s this for broad: comic books. That’s the medium Warhol’s contemporary, Roy Lichtenstein, borrowed from in his Pop Art contributions.
“Lichtenstein was saying that [he] wants to appropriate pop culture and elevate it to fine art,” Whittington says. He does that graphically, step-by-step, in a series of illustrations called “Bull” in which a simple representative drawing of a bull is morphed, over six panels, into a completely abstract Mondrian-type work. It’s a fascinating and fun exercise.
But he is most famed for mimicking (some might say copying) the panels of comics and blowing up the image until the Bed-Day dots that comprise its colors become visible and central to the idea: What is this thing, in its most basic components? How does it tell us its story and make us feel?
Not everyone is on board with the merits of Lichtenstein’s appropriations of comics. Pulitzer Prize-winning comics creator and champion Art Spiegelman (Maus) is on record as saying, “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup.”
Two other solo shows open along with Pop Icons – John Haley: Berkeley School Abstract Expressionist, a “thin slice” from the 1950s of the career of the important California artist and longtime UC Berkeley professor; and Cultural Collisions: Prints by Enrique Chagoya, which is the most modern and politically aggressive stuff in the show. But it’s tempered with satire and funny bits, like his homage to Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, relabeled with flavors like the art world-centric “Critic’s Tongue,” and the Wall Street meltdown-related “Freddie Mac ‘n’ Cheese.” Fun, volatile, and mmm, mmm good.
POP ICONS opens 6-8pm Friday with a Pop Art costume party ($25/general; $15/student, military; $10/MMA member; free/Mo+Co member); 2pm Sunday screening of Warhol’s film Camp (regular museum admission); regular museum hours: 11am-5pm Wednesday to Saturday, 1-4pm Sunday. Monterey Museum of Art-La Mirada, 720 Via Mirada, Monterey. 372-5477, www.montereyart.org