Warhol Wars

The Walker’s new exhibit pits Jackie against Marilyn and glamour versus gore

Keri Carlson

Jacqueline Kennedy smiles sweetly in a prim jacket and looks like the all-American girl.

Marilyn Monroe lowers her gaze, parts her lips and looks utterly desirable.

“They shared a man and now they share a room,” said Douglas Fogle, curator of the Walker Art Center’s latest show, “Andy Warhol/ Supernova,” explaining the decision to have Warhol’s “16 Jackies” face off with “Marilyn Diptych.”

“They’re the yin and yang of the show ” the good girl versus bad girl,” Fogle said.

And though Jackie and Marilyn are as different as day and night ” or blonde and brunette ” Warhol extracts from both women the public’s fascination with celebrity tragedy.

“16 Jackies” features photos of Jackie taken from magazines showing her before and after JFK’s assassination. Warhol chose to screen-print Marilyn after her death. They are part of an exhibit that features Warhol’s silk screens of celebrities, death and disasters. And to Warhol, these were one and the same.

The show focuses on specific years, 1962 to 1964, of Warhol’s career. In this period, Warhol was fascinated by media images and the effects of reproducing images until they become meaningless.

Warhol once said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”

To see Warhol’s works from this time period in a book is one thing. In person, the size of the silk-screen grids creates a sublime sensation that emphasizes that repetition.

Seeing the works up close also allows viewers to notice that the repeated images actually are not exactly the same. Warhol chose a manufactured, industrial process of reproducing images; but the silk-screen method still has flaws, and in “Marilyn Diptych,” some images of her face are smeared with dark ink and the last column is faded.

“The flaw of the machine makes the differences, and that becomes the expression,” Fogle said.

As much as Warhol insisted he was not a critic, he could not completely remove himself from his works.

Although he sought to reduce his images to a kind of emptiness, many of his disaster silk screens ” works that documented atrocities like car crashes and murders ” cannot escape producing effects. Most notably, “Pink Race Riot” uses chilling photographs from civil rights conflicts in Birmingham, Ala. And it could be argued that the increased size and repetition, in this case, make the image even more powerful than before.

This goes along with author and art critic Susan Sontag’s findings in her book “On Photography.” Fogle said that at first Sontag thought repetition numbs us. But she then theorized that, in fact, the repetition makes images more powerful, for it allows us distance to truly see and understand the image.

“I start to think of Warhol as a humanist,” Fogle said, which contrasts with Warhol’s assertion that he wanted to be a machine.

But what Warhol said is not always to be trusted. “With what any author says, you have to think about how you read it,” Fogle said. If Warhol’s work depends on the viewer’s reading, how does Warhol relate in a modern context?

In the 1960s, Warhol was criticized for being unoriginal. Today, however, Warhol’s name has become a symbol of modern art, and thus, that criticism has been somewhat erased.

“The world is increasingly pervasive,” Fogle said, which might mean that Warhol’s work has greater meaning today than in the ’60s because we understand the influence of mass media and reproduced images.

Fogle compared Warhol’s strategy to that of French philosopher Michel Foucault.

“Foucault said he was not writing history, he was writing the present,” Fogle said.

In similar fashion, Warhol acted as a barometer ” he did not judge culture, but was able to uncover some of its interworkings.

“I can’t help but think about New Orleans,” Fogle said when comparing Warhol’s images to the present day. “Supernova” is a powerful display for this reason; Warhol seems to have predicted the future. He was able to point to society’s obsessions with disaster, death and fame.

A few pieces in “Supernova,” however, have lost significance over time. One painting repeats a still of Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.” The image is no longer familiar or instantly recognizable. This leads to the question of whether Warhol’s work can act alone or only with culture. If Liz is unfamiliar, what happens to that image?

“The context is certainly important,” Fogle said. “That’s why there’s no harm in looking at the label.”