Andy Warhol, the guru of Pop art, reveled in a lifelong obsession with newspapers, especially tabloids and their garish headlines. As a teenager, he saved pages with photos of his favorite Hollywood stars. Throughout his life he packed hundreds of newspapers into boxes he called “time capsules” to whet the fancy of the future. He collected scores of fraying clippings about himself in 34 scrapbooks. But most important, he used newspapers, especially the front pages, to model and inform some of the most important works of his fine art. It is hard to imagine Warhol the artist without his headlines.
Warhol’s news junkie obsession and its importance to his art are detailed with great care in a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington titled simply “Warhol: Headlines.” The show, which closes Jan. 2, goes on to the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt in February, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome in June and the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh in October 2012.
Unlike a retrospective of all the work of Warhol, the exhibition attempts to concentrate on a single aspect of the artist that, in fact, reveals a good deal about him. Curator Molly Donovan of the National Gallery says, “the theme enabled me to tell a tight and focused story ... that had not been understood before.” Donovan dates Warhol’s emergence as a fine artist to a series of newspaper canvases that he created in the early 1960s. Until then, he had devoted himself to advertising design (including a lucrative campaign for I. Miller shoes) and magazine illustration.
In one 1962 canvas, “A Boy for Meg (2),” which belongs to the National Gallery, Warhol, using oil and egg emulsion, re-created the front page of the New York Post announcing a baby boy born to Princess Margaret of England. Margaret was a household name. Only a few years earlier she had given in to pressure from the British royal family and, while the world awaited her decision, finally agreed not to marry the divorced man she loved. She later wed a never-married suitor instead, and the New York Post was celebrating the birth of their first child. Both the tabloid and Warhol shared an excitement over celebrity.
Warhol’s rendition was not a simple reproduction. He inflated the front page on to a canvas 6 feet high and, while he attempted to include every detail, his pictures looked more like drawings than photographs. Warhol was often obscure while explaining his work. John Russell, a New York Times art critic, once wrote that “Warhol operates behind a mask of inarticulacy.” Yet Warhol seemed clear about mocking the notion that he served as no more than a mirror reproducing his subject matter. “I’m going to look into the mirror and see nothing,” he once said. “People are always calling me a mirror, and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?”
In another 6-foot-high canvas completed in 1962, “Daily News,” Warhol used acrylic and pencil to mimic the front and back pages of the New York tabloid. This work celebrated Elizabeth Taylor’s rejection of her husband, singer Eddie Fisher, for actor Richard Burton. “Eddie Fisher Breaks Down/ In Hospital Here; Liz in Rome,” the main headlines bellowed. Warhol removed all the captions from the photos, leaving details to the imagination of the viewers.
The 34-year-old Warhol was little known when he exhibited these works, and the idea of Pop art — the use of the icons of popular culture as subject matter for fine art — was little understood. His work was not well received at first. Dore Ashton, an influential critic, wrote that “Warhol simply lifts the techniques of journalism and applies them witlessly to a flat surface.” But that view changed. It was soon recognized, as Donovan puts it, that Warhol had elevated his hoarded headlines “to the status of art” and had transformed his material “into something both grand and personal.”
Warhol attracted more favorable notice with other subjects from this period like his paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans and his many colored silk screens of Marilyn Monroe. These spectacular works won him great success. His followers started calling him “the Pope of Pop” and “Papa Pop.”
Warhol never abandoned headlines as a subject — even when he sensed that the tabloids were losing their impact. A few years after he emerged as a celebrated Pop artist, he saw the demise of one of his favorite tabloids — the Hearst Corp.'s New York Mirror. He also believed that television was replacing the tabloids as the source of lurid, gossipy “headlines” about celebrities and disasters. To keep up with this trend, Warhol and his followers began experimenting with the creation of television programs.
The artist was an avid photographer, and he enjoyed aiming his camera at tabloid vending machines with visible front-page headlines. “Drug Link to Amtrak Crash,” cried one New York Post headline while another said, "$1.3m Picasso Disappears Again On L.I.” While in London, he photographed the news vendor announcements that summarized the tabloid headlines. “London Strangler ‘Kills Again,’” said one.
Warhol’s New York studio, known as the Silver Factory or the Factory, was a collegial enterprise with many hangers-on The scene, according to Donovan, “had become its own hot commodity, selling cool stylishness.” She describes it in the exhibition catalog as “a space where transvestites, heiresses, speed freaks, wealthy art collectors, rock musicians and Harvard graduates alike mixed together.” The antics of the studio added to the celebrity of Warhol. “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you,” he once said about media coverage. “Just measure it in inches.”
The Factory was also the scene of the near killing of Warhol. In June 1968, Valerie Solanas, a feminist writer and hanger-on angered by the Factory’s refusal to accept her manuscript for one of its publications, shot Warhol in the chest. Doctors managed to save Warhol’s life only by massaging his heart. By now, Warhol had become enough of a celebrity to make the front page of his beloved tabloids. “Andy Warhol Fights for Life,” the New York Post proclaimed, running front-page photos of Warhol and his assassin. The New York Daily News said, “Actress Shoots Andy Warhol.”
In his later years, Warhol collaborated on newspaper projects with two young New York graffiti artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Both had distinguished but abbreviated careers, Basquiat dying at age 27 and Haring at age 31.
In a 1984 Basquiat collaboration, Warhol set down a headline from the New York Post: “Ailing Ali In Fight of Life.” That headline, reminiscent of Warhol’s own headline in the Post, described boxer Muhammad Ali’s early symptoms of brain damage. In graffiti fashion, Basquiat painted around Warhol’s letters with advertising logos and animals that obscured the original headline.
In a 1985 collaboration with Haring, Warhol used another New York Post front page as their model. Its main headline reported, “Madonna: ‘I’m Not Ashamed'/Rock star shrugs off nudie pix furor.” The artists produced a series of garish versions of the front page, some in glow paint, almost all covered with the favorite graffiti figures of Haring. No viewer could mistake these canvases as a reproduction of the original front page.
In 1987, when he was 58, Warhol died of complications from gall bladder surgery. The tabloids did not forget him. The front page of the New York Post ran a photo of Warhol standing in front of a silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. It announced in large, somber type: “Andy Warhol Dead at 58.” The subhead described him as the “Prince of pop art who turned a soup can into museum treasure.” Stories about the “Life & Times of a Media Genius” were promised on three inside pages.
A far different Warhol can be encountered across the national mall at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum. Curators there are displaying Shadows, a monumental Warhol work that extends 450 feet along the museum’s curving walls. Completed in 1979, Shadows, which will be on exhibition in Washington until mid-January, is a complete break from pop art.
Warhol may have been mimicking and perhaps making fun of abstract art. The work comprises 102 colorful panels, each one a painting and silk screen of a similar right-angled figure that Warhol claimed was “based on a photo of a shadow in my office.” Warhol, evoking an image like that of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack dripping paint, also claimed that he mopped acrylic paint on to each canvas before it was silk screened. Hirshhorn curator Evelyn Hankins points out, however, that much of the paint is too carefully applied to fit the chaotic strokes of a mop.
All 102 panels have never before been displayed together. The Dia Art Foundation, which owns the work, usually shows 72. Perhaps because each panel is slightly different and Warhol and his assistants used some of his favorite colors like carmine and chartreuse and peach, the repetitive effect is far from boring — but mesmerizing instead, much like an impressionist film.