Andy Warhol at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
When there’s an Andy Warhol exhibition in town, you go. Or maybe you don’t go, I don’t know. I went. I’d always thought of him as a big put-on, one of those people who babble on about the meaning of what they’re doing. An earnest guy, who, in all seriousness, could claim to be celebrating the icons of our culture. Yadda yadda yadda.
I get to the museum at the same time as two buses full of kids, one group of high-school students and one group of second-graders. I rolled my eyes and went in anyway: I’m brave. I went to the other exhibit first, a collection of modern- and pop-art prints and sculpture from a local collector. I saw Dali, I saw Magritte, I saw Picasso, I saw Liechtenstein.
I saw a room full of adolescents trying to find meaning in everything:
“I saw a face in the stained-glass one.”
“He saw a face! Come see!”
“See? It’s right there. The head’s kind of tilted to the side…”
They all tilted their heads to the side.
“I see it!”
“You do not. There’s nothing there.”
“No, there is. Right there. You’re just not looking at it right.”
I saw a room full of delight and nonsense: the irreverence of one picture fed into and off of another. A room with only one of those would have been a lonely, lonely room, the class clown forced to sit alone and think.
After that, I went over to the Andy Warhol exhibit. It started out with other people’s pictures of him: the white hair all askew, dark jacket. The same seriousness of expression you’d see on one of William Wegman’s dog photographs. And then there was a TV screen playing snippets of interviews.
“Does it bother you that the American public has misinterpreted Pop Art?”
“Do you think Pop Art is dying out?”
“Is it time for Pop Art to move on?”
“Are you going to continue to create Pop Art?”
Quotes are printed directly onto the walls, and the windows have been covered with translucent film. It’s a graphic designer’s world, big blocks of color and simple shapes everywhere. You find out that Warhol was born to Czech immigrant parents, that he was a lifelong Catholic and churchgoer, that Warhol first decorated the canvas and only then silkscreened the photographic image on top, that the fabulous shock of white hair was eventually replaced by a series of wigs.
Then, and only then, was I allowed to wander around his art. I saw Campbell’s Soup cans (one of them sported the soup type “PEPPER POT”). I saw Marilyn, at first cartoonish with yellow hair and pink lips, become progressively more disfunctional, her skin lurid shades of blue or green, the color swatches and outlines more and more out of alignment with the silkscreened photograph. I saw Chairman Mao: were we afraid of this man with the button-up collar and the effeminate lips? Or was he only the bogeyman that Warhol turned him into? I saw JFK (today is the anniversary of his assassination) through a printbook that retroactively orchestrated his assassination.
The series that cut closest to home was called “Cowboys and Indians.” He didn’t show Russell Means; he didn’t show poverty; he didn’t show Wounded Knee. He turned John Wayne, Custer, Crazy Horse (was it Crazy Horse?), a Squaw carrying an infant in a papoose, an Indian-head nickel with the word “Liberty” on it. Here are our myths: what a crock of shit. We believed in Custer with his shiny buttons. We believed in John Wayne and his manly drawl.
Near the end of the exhibit was a room, painted matte black, set with track lighting and a curtain of silver ribbon across the door. Inside were four fans and about fifty silver mylar balloons the size of body pillows. And a room full of teenagers.
At first I was angry at them. Most of them were lying on the floor, face-down, taking a nap, or picking on each other. One was trying to collect as many balloons as he could, holding them by the corners. And so on. One kid was watching the reflections the balloons were throwing on the walls–that was it. One kid out of twenty. And then it clicked: a room full of balloons, even that room, could only be interesting for a little while. It wasn’t about the balloons. It was the people. I watched them: some of them, when brushed by a balloon, didn’t noticed. Some brushed them away. Some shoved them, flung them away. Some of them invested all their attention into making sure they wouldn’t get touched. Some of them tried to control the balloons. And so on. I wonder if Warhol did that: went to his own exhibitions just to watch people, because they were so much more interesting than the art.
After a while, I left. The docent said, “Every house needs a room like that.”
I said, “For at fifteen minutes a day, at least.”