As you enter the Portland Art Museum you are confronted by a wall of big colorful prints with the face of Chairman Mao by Andy Warhol from 1972. I wonder what Mao means to viewers now. The leader of China (back then “Red China” or “Communist China”) died 40 years ago.
Warhol used the stock ubiquitous portrait of Mao Zedong, the same image that was then plastered all over China at the time. It’s interesting to think that then it was politically cheeky for Warhol to use an image of arch-enemy Mao in the same way he had utilized the images of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time, it must have been almost sacrilegious from the Chinese viewpoint to depict the iconic Chairman with a blue face, green lips and arty scribbles.
The framed prints are even hung on wallpaper with purple Mao faces. With his wallpapers that repeated images from his prints and paintings, Warhol was among the first to raise questions of what disciplines were to be considered within the realm of “fine art.” Paintings, sculpture, prints—certainly fine art—but wallpaper?
This survey of Warhol’s work in printmaking, Andy Warhol: Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, provides an opportunity to evaluate what he brought to contemporary art thinking, especially to the rise of Pop Art in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The Mao images seem come at the end of his most important work. I think that’s because Mao is his last icon. His first was the Campbell’s soup can in a series of small paintings from 1962. In this exhibition we have a series of Campbell’s soup prints from 1968. Warhol’s instinct/insight was that the labeled can of Campbell’s soup was, indeed, iconic. It was good comfort food hot lunch, with a graphically strong, simple red label. I don’t know if it could be an icon today. We are developing different ideas about food now.
Also in 1962, Warhol made his first paintings of the Marilyn Monroe image. She was definitely a popular icon then—the sexy blond actress who had just died of a drug overdose at age 36. More than 50 years later, she might be best known now for Warhol’s images of her. In this exhibition we have Warhol’s Marilyn prints from 1967.
What Warhol did best was to find in popular culture the iconic image and to make it his own. With the portraits he altered the image to high contrast and then colorized it and, for me, it is Warhol’s inventiveness with color that makes these images important. I know of no precedent for Warhol’s strong combinations of colors. With color Warhol also tapped into the spirit of the time as he worked out series of color variations with his images. Such series investigations would also be done by (among others) Frank Stella in abstract painting and Donald Judd in sculpture in the 1960s and beyond.
But, even with their images of the famous stars and their garish colors, Warhol’s iconic images are very restrained. They are simply straightforward portraits with the two steps of heightening contrast and coloring. In this way Warhol’s Pop Art fits in line with the “minimalist” tendency of the time.
Later on in the timeline of this exhibition, the works are competent, but less compelling. Rationales for series such as Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, Myths, or Endangered Species seem forced. With these and with potentially iconic images of Mick Jagger or Muhammad Ali, Warhol also lost his restraint: the prints are complicated with collage-like color areas and line drawing that just feels “arty.”
The exhibition gives a good introduction to this artist who also made himself into an icon —of contemporary art. By aligning himself with the “scene” outside “fine art” he became the most famous living artist of the ‘60s, setting the stage for art stars to follow.
Downstairs, “power up” with Corita Kent’s version of Pop
There’s another exhibition at PAM by an artist who caught a different aspect of the spirit of the 1960s: Corita Kent Spiritual Pop. There’s no giant wall display to announce this exhibition. You need to seek it out downstairs in the prints gallery. She didn’t seek art stardom, but she was an important artist. In the 1986 obituary, the Los Angeles Times noted: “In 1966, when she had 150 one-woman shows in galleries, museums and universities throughout the country, she was named The Time’s ‘Woman of the Year.’”
There is a big image as you enter the exhibition, Power Up, 1965. That’s what the image says: Power Up. It is a silkscreen print in four panels, over 12 feet wide. It is telling you to “power up” long before Nike told you to “just do it.” As with many of the works in this show, there is a subtext beneath the headline, in this case a long philosophical/religious text by Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and activist. At that time Sister Mary Corita was a member of Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles. Three years later she gave up her sisterhood to re-enter the secular world as Corita Kent.
The “power up” slogan came from Richfield Oil advertising. Kent was attuned to the world of advertising and graphic design, carefully selecting key phrases and images and combining them with quotations from sources such as Martin Luther King, Jr., e.e. Cummings, James Joyce, or Navajo prayer. The headlines tends to be big and bold. The quotations are smaller and subtle, sometimes difficult to read. Consider the text slowly after the headline grabs your attention.
Although she left the religious order, issues of social justice permeated her work until her death in 1986. I came across this anecdote in the LA Times obit:
“She boycotted the official ceremony celebrating the issuance of her 22-cent stamp in April, 1985, because the government held the event on the set of the ‘Love Boat’ television show in Burbank.
She said at the time that she did not approve of the ‘Love Boat’ show because ‘the TV definition of love is nothing very deep, and everything gets resolved in an hour. I think it’s dangerous to educate people that way—that love happens that fast, that troubles are resolved that easily.’”
I remember seeing a film about Kent back when I was a student at Portland State. I just found it on You Tube: Sister Corita We Have No Art. The very small part that made an impact on me occurred when she took students to a new-and-used tire store and assigned them to a “two-hour looking session.” She recommended making a little inch-square viewing rectangle from cardboard to isolate what might turn out to be visually interesting. I know that that minute-and-a-half of the 26-minute film had a great impact on me. That’s when the light bulb turned on illuminating the idea that anything can be worth considering visually.
Corita Kent looked to the complicated world and pulled out meaningful incidents combining the crassness of advertising with more carefully considered poetry and philosophy. Andy Warhol found the crass world of celebrity and brought it to the art world. Both artists succeeded through careful choices and strong graphic design. Make sure to go downstairs as well as up stairs.