New Exhibit Puts Andy Warhol’s News Treatments on Display

Posted October 4, 2011 at 3:10pm

“We all make the Warhol we need, and get the Warhol we deserve,” art critic Hal Foster wrote in 1996.

The new exhibit “Warhol: Headlines” challenges Andy Warhol’s own repeated claims that he was simply a mirror of modern society — a reflective surface that confronts us with our own shallowness and obsessions.

There may be no better city to have birthed the new exhibit, which is currently at the National Gallery of Art.  

“Warhol: Headlines” has been four years in the making. It examines the painter’s relationship with the news as tactile, as commodity, as fetish, as cult, as mirror and as self-expression.

The exhibit was the brainchild of the gallery’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, Molly Donovan. She was inspired by the National Gallery’s 1962 Warhol canvas “A Boy for Meg.” This painting, based on the front page of a tabloid blaring the baby news of the United Kingdom’s Princess Margaret, is notable for being the first of Warhol’s headline-themed works to leave his studio. It was sold just days after its completion to collectors Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine.

“A Boy for Meg” came to the National Gallery in 1971. The painting is polished and looks familiar to tabloid-saturated eyes. However, as a hand-painted canvas in muted grays and blues, it is the opposite of the silk-screened, neon-colored pieces usually associated with Warhol.

For the first time in almost 50 years, the gallery’s “A Boy for Meg” is reunited with three other early hand-painted Warhols, each one the artist’s personal retelling of tragedy and scandal. With his headlines pieces, perhaps more than any of his other works, Warhol reveals himself — and his personal view of the world — through what he chooses to include and leave out.

Donovan says the show grew out of her attempt to place the gallery’s painting in the context of Warhol’s other news treatments.

“You have to wonder about how [‘A Boy for Meg’] entered the world,” Donovan says. “How it was birthed. Not just [the painting], but how that painting came forward as the first one to leave the studio.”

Only after she began this process did she realize that Warhol’s headlines — a thematic and artistic treatment of the news that spanned his entire career — hadn’t been fully examined in academic literature and certainly not in exhibition form.

Donovan says her “a-ha moment” was a quiet one. One night more than four years ago, she was at home watching a PBS documentary on the artist.

It “presented Warhol in a very sympathetic light,” Donovan says. “[It] was very accurate. It was critical certainly, but it just seemed like the most fair treatment of Warhol that I had encountered. I remember watching it with my husband and we both said, ‘You know? You should do a Warhol show.’”

What is immediately clear from the exhibit is Warhol’s obsession with news and its tabloid and headline format. The artist himself was never seen without a newspaper tucked under his arm. He created what he called “time capsules,” filling one box after another with mostly New York newspapers.

Every day of the year was collected and stacked into towers across his desk. Only after they threatened to drown him in copy did Warhol box them. Donovan has included several of the time capsules in the exhibit, as well as a black-and-white photograph of Warhol sitting at the desk behind the towering papers.

Warhol drew from the immediacy of daily papers, and by doing so he was able to re-create moments in our collective history and keep them fresh, poignant and surprising.

Perhaps the best example of this is “Flash” (1968). It is a “portfolio of 11 screen prints and 11 corresponding wrappers with teletype text by Phillip Greer” that captures President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in real time, as it came over the wire.

“First Day — 11/22/63

First Lead Kennedy

Dallas, Nov. 22 — President and Mrs. Kennedy arrivedx [sic.] here today in the second day of their swing through Texas. Following a tumultuous reception in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth yesterday, the president was xxxx scheduled to speak today to a democratic luncheon, after the motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart,” the first teletype wrapper begins. “Thousands of Texans xxxxx rimmed the landing area at Love Field as the president’s plane, Air Force One, touched down at 11:37 a.m. (CST).

“Flash Dallas — Shots at Kennedy Motorcade.”

Suddenly, the viewer is drawn right back into the moment. As a collective, we remember how America was before those shots, and how in a flash it was gone.

“[‘Flash’] is Warhol at his most empathetic,” Donovan says.

The work captures this moment in “flashes” of the news literally wrapping flashes of image. The text is fresh. The images, like that of the smiling president and the first lady, are jarring. Their juxtaposition brings the audience straight back to the confusion and terror of Nov. 22 and 23, 1963.

“[You] feel Warhol is empathizing with the subject,” Donovan says. But “[‘Flash’] is the most critical, in a way. It is pointing our attention to the cinematic and televised.”

“Flash” has several meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the quickness of the event. But it also refers to the flash of the teletype, the rapid stream of news and images that come at us.

It is also “the flashback, in our mind’s eye, of the replay,” Donovan says. “The image of Kennedy [shot] was replayed constantly. We just needed to know more. We couldn’t satisfy our need to get at the truth of what happened. It was such a … shock to the nation and the world.

“I don’t know that [‘Flash’] is even that well-known,” Donovan says. “I think scholars know it, but I don’t think it’s become a popularly well-known work.”

However, Donovan says, it is one of Warhol’s critical pieces. It was commissioned by Alexander Racolin for the Racolin Press.

The gallery’s exhibit is one of the first times the text and the images have been exhibited together.

“The wrappers were generally not shown in the installation,” Donovan says. “It is usually a selection of images are shown. I thought [that ‘Flash’] needs to be understood as alternating text and image.”

The two parts of the work are competing for attention the same way a newspaper does, Donovan says, and certainly just as the Internet does today.

Since it is impossible for the gallery to show every page of text and every image, it has the odd-numbered pages on display. The entire piece can be viewed online and in the exhibit’s catalogue. 

“Warhol: Headlines” will be on display at the National Gallery of Art until Jan. 2.