May 4, 2016

No One Compares: Andy Warhol, Pop, Prince, and the Face of Sinéad O’Connor

art rev

Time for some free association: if someone says Andy Warhol, what’s the first thing you think of? For me, the word is face, not Warhol’s bland, pallid, never-quite-there visage, anything but that. I’m thinking of the faces he blew up, daubed, and decorated, like Blue Marilyn at the Princeton University Art Museum and the screenprints of Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Alexander the Great, plus the Polaroid portraits of, among others, Pia Zadora, Sylvester Stallone, and Princess Caroline of Monaco on view through July 31 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick in “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs.”

Warhol Does Rutgers

In early March 1966, at the student union several blocks up College Avenue from the Zimmerli, Andy Warhol and his Velvet Underground entourage descended on the student cafeteria where, according to Lou Reed, “the boys and girls flipped out gawking at Nico while Barbara Rubin filmed their reactions and Nat Finkelstein took photographs.” When a security person said “no photographs,” Finkelstein punched him in the nose, precipitating the arrival of the campus cops. Warhol was asked to show a nonexistent cafeteria pass, members of the troupe began screaming, and everyone was thrown out. As a result, that evening’s mixed media event, “Andy Warhol’s Underground New York,” sold out in the next two hours, and some 650 students packed the auditorium at Scott Hall “to see what would happen next.” According to the Velvet’s Sterling Morrison “We were all dressed entirely in white. The effect, with all the films and lights projected on us, was invisibility.” Says Warhol: “It was fantastic to see Nico singing with a big movie of her face right behind her. Gerard [Malanga] was dancing with two long shining flashlights, one in each hand, twirling them like batons …. I was behind one of the projectors, moving images around.”

Warhol Meets Prince

Not on view at the Zimmerli is Warhol’s print of the star whose image has been beamed around the world since his death at 57 on April 21. The acrylic silkscreen of Prince’s face is done in (what else?) deep purple, with black eyebrows and mustache and hair. The Andy Warhol Diaries has Warhol meeting Prince after his show at Madison Square Garden on August 2, 1986: “We sat down just as Prince jumped out naked, or almost, and it’s the greatest concert I’ve ever seen there, just so much energy and excitement.” At the party after the show, clad in “a white coat and pink bellbottoms, like a Puerto Rican at a prom,” Prince “shook everyone’s hand and danced with each and every girl — all these weird girls in sixties dresses.”

The portrait of Prince, like the screenprints of Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, is among Warhol’s last works. He died six months later in February 1987 due to a series of hospital misadventures following routine gall bladder surgery.

Incomparable

Getting back to the free-association idea, if someone were to say face or faces to me, I’d think first of the faces we see in passing in the course of a day, in the market or on the street, most of them strangers intent on some thought or task or emotion; from there I’d flash on the opening stanza of William Blake’s “London”: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street,/Near where the charter’d Thames does flow./And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Then, thinking of the realm of pop media Warhol explored so obsessively, I go back to a night of channel-surfing in 1990 when an Irish singer I’d never heard of mesmerized me, eye to eye, for five incredible minutes. Had Warhol lived to see Sinéad O’Connor in the video for her cover of Prince’s “No One Compares 2 U,” he’d have found an irresistible subject. The term “covered” doesn’t begin to describe what she does with a song she owns as surely as if she’d composed every word and every note with her own blood and tears. Though the video contains glimpses of the Parc St. Cloud in Paris, the soul of it is in the anguished narrative of expressions animating her face, held and sustained in close-up: close enough to kiss, bump heads with, naked, intimate, dominant, definitive, nothing but a television screen between you and this not conventionally beautiful yet wholly magnificent presence.

Gossip

The lifeblood of Pop for Warhol was celebrity gossip, and no doubt he’d have relished hearing Sinéad O’Connor’s account of her after-midnight confrontation with Prince at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills (“we had a punch-up”). Like a one-man social media search engine decades ahead of snapchat and instagram, his only equipment a camera and tape recorder, Warhol created his own form of Facebook.

The Diaries provide some back story gossip for the Polaroids at the Zimmerli. Warhol found Sylvester Stallone “really hard to photograph” because “from the front his neck is skinny, then from the side it looks three feet wide. From the front he has a huge chest, and from the side no chest at all …. He’s like Rubber Man.” Warhol, who came to Stallone’s suite at the Regency directly from church, made the actor take off his shirt (“he was wearing some kind of medal”); the aura of the Polaroid Polacolor Type 108 print is closer to Svengali than Rocky.

A day later Warhol was signing his posters of Ted Kennedy at a gallery on Madison Avenue (noting, as was his habit, cab fare and cost of supplies). All the Kennedys except Ted were there, including Kerry Kennedy and one of her sisters, “and Kerry’s prettier. They’re all funny-looking those kids.” A Polaroid print of Kerry being playful is at the Zimmerli. So is one of Pia Zadora from July 28, 1983 (“so cute, so sweet. Her skin is beautiful … she had on a beautiful ring — a diamond with blue sapphies”). The portrait of Caroline, Princess of Monaco, was taken October 13, 1983, when she was posing for the December cover of French Vogue. Warhol had to rush to get to the shoot (“cab $6.50”), where it took her “one or two hours to get dressed …. She’s pretty but she looks forty … like she’s really been through the mill. But they know how to pull her together.” The poised, beautiful face at the Zimmerli belies Warhol’s commentary.

While the Diaries, which begin in 1976, provide no gossipy background for screenprints like the series Electric Chairs (1971), based on images in the press at the time of the Rosenberg executions, and Vegetarian Vegetable from Campbell’s Soup II (1969), an August 1981 entry notes that after visiting a Campbell’s-centered exhibit at the Colorado State Museum, Warhol was “so tired of Campbell’s Soup Can I could throw up.”

The Wild West

The last time I saw Phoebe Ann Mosey, known best as Annie Oakley, she was impersonated by Barbara Stanwyck. Warhol has done wonders with a trading card image from Little Miss Sure Shot’s days with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. There’s something better than the banality of Pop in the silkscreens of Annie and Sitting Bull and, especially, Alexander the Great, with its Picassoesque line work, which was based on a bronze portrait bust in a blockbuster show that was touring the U.S. in the eighties; according to the exhibit notes, the gay community saw Alexander as a symbol of gay pride.

Zimmerli uses the term “banality” in reference to the post-World-War II advertising subtext of Vegetarian Vegetable. The word Warhol might have used is highlighted in the Diaries, where he quotes “the funniest line” from an exchange between two photographers viewing his Pia Zadora portraits:

“How could Andy Warhol sink to such mediocrity?”

“What do you mean? He’s famous for sinking to mediocrity.”

Of course the banality of celebrity is among the messages behind not only “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame” but Warhol’s Diaries and his book, written with Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, which contains one of the best accounts of what Pop in the largest sense meant to Warhol. Describing a cross-country drive to California in October 1963: “The farther west we drove, the more Pop everything looked on the highways. Suddenly we all felt like insiders because even though Pop was everywhere … to us it was the new Art. Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.”

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“Honoré Daumier and the Art of La Caricature,” a show with some interesting features in common with “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs,” is also on view at the Zimmerli through July 31.

For information on all current exhibits, visit www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.