Warhol at Williams
Both The Hyde and the Williams College Museum of Art are exhibiting work by Andy Warhol this summer. Here’s what to expect in Williamstown.
While the Hyde Collection examines Andy Warhol’s late drawings this summer, another exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art considers a related facet of the Pop artist’s career: that is, his books.
The show, “Warhol by the Book,” covers most of the upstairs galleries at the museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and contains some 400 items from both its permanent collection and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Playfully presented and thrilling on the eye, the show makes an excellent case for the importance of Warhol’s book work, which comprises 80 finished projects plus a number of unfinished ones. While Warhol claimed to never read, the museum is stocked with books from his personal library and outfitted with other ephemera, such as postcards, letters, and photographs. Besides calling attention to this rarely examined material, the exhibition also confirms, with its splashes of sweet pinks and lettuce greens, that Warhol was a tremendous colorist, and as the Hyde also signals, an astute draftsman whose drawings possessed a transfixing immediacy.
Warhol’s work with books dates from 1939. Then, the 11 year-old Warhol, the son of Eastern European immigrants, started filling a scrapbook with Hollywood glamour photographs of people like Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple (the scrapbook is sadly absent from the show). Later, as a student at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he studied pictorial design, Warhol produced illustrations for texts by authors Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Penn Warren. These works contain some early indicators of the artist’s later finesse with line and color, but on the whole remain unremarkable. It is only after his graduation in 1949, when he relocated to New York, that Warhol became an accomplished (and well-paid) commercial artist whose graphic designs had zing.
In this pre-Campbell Soup can period, Warhol illustrated everything imaginable: from brochures and how-to guides, to children’s books, fashion advertisements, and sales catalogues. Warhol’s book cover designs feature prominently in the show, the earliest of which were produced for the avant-garde publisher New Directions. He also illustrated covers for Doubleday’s Dolphin paperback series, such as Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” But although Warhol has some recurring trademarks, such as his rascally, blotted line, and his fleshy pink fairies with puffy hair, the artist remains hard to locate in some of the commercial work. Usually he was loyally meeting the demands of his clients and adapting to each assignment’s particulars. But he performed that task very well. In fact, this flair for anonymity perhaps foreshadows the artist’s later, famously cool and impersonal work.
Even better are the collaborative artist books that Warhol produced in small editions and passed out to friends, colleagues, and potential clients. In “25 Cats Name [sic] Sam and One Blue Pussy” (1954), Warhol creates hand-colored lithographs of cats—named Sam. In the waggish “Wild Raspberries” (1959), Warhol and interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt mock extravagant French cuisine recipes (a fad in the ‘50s), while “Horoscopes for the Coc[k]tail Hour” (1959) combines astrological advice and cocktail blends with more illustrations of giddy pink fairies. Then there is the artist’s working children’s book, “So” (1959), which, like many of the books, features the calligraphic scrawl of Warhol’s mother, Julia.
As Warhol once remarked, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he—for some reason—thinks it would be a good idea to give them.” What is striking about the artist’s books is this remorseless embrace of frivolity (a frivolity that may, at the same time, recall the work of French artist Henri Matisse). “Here,” Warhol seems to say, “are shoes and strawberries, cats and stars, birds and butterflies. Look, aren’t they just great?”
Warhol’s prime was in the ‘60s and some of the most original book work is from this decade. One of the more unusual pieces in the show, the accordion-style maquette for the “Marilyn Book” (1965) consists of octagonal cutouts from Warhol’s colorful silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe, those he started churning out after the star’s death in 1962. Unfurled within a glass case, snake-like, the book is fascinating as an abstract display of shape and color, and with no accompanying words to boot. The show also includes from this period the startling print portfolio “Flash—November 22, 1963” (1968), color silkscreens that elliptically chronicle the Kennedy assassination. In the adjacent gallery, the museum has projected Warhol’s closely observed film portraits of writers such as John Ashberry and Allen Ginsberg.
Later, Warhol’s work with books could seem more traditional. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the artist was under contract with eight major publishing houses: the kid who had once pasted celebrity faces into a scrapbook had become a Pop Art icon, and the work he produced in this period in part reflected that new status. Take, for example, “Andy Warhol’s Party Book,” co-written with Pat Hackett and published after Warhol’s sudden death in 1987, in which the artist, as the dust jacket explained, “talks about the best parties he went to and why they were so great.” Warhol’s photographs of Manhattan’s burnt-out social scene complemented the text. This was the same period Warhol said that “good business is the best art.” If so, Warhol’s late books are brilliant works of art.
But not all of the late books are so outwardly mercenary. “Vanishing Animals” (1986) is a title about endangered species that Warhol co-produced with Dr. Kurt Benirschke, whose lecture on the same topic had intrigued the artist. Warhol illustrated the book the year before he died. He had been preoccupied with death since writer Valerie Solanas had shot and almost killed him in 1968, so these silkscreen-collages of the vanishing Mongolian Wild Horse and Sumatra’s Rhinoceros are surely colored by his thoughts on mortality. These rare, fading creatures make you think of that other exotic, sickly creature that was Andy Warhol.
“Warhol by the Book” runs through August 16