Branded an opportunist, a charlatan, and a third-rate artist by some critics during his lifetime, Andy Warhol is now recognized as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. This "Pope of Pop" transformed celebrity photo-ops and commercial logos into fine art. He captured the best and worst of America with symbols that still resonate.
Many of Warhol's most famous works — including Campbell's soup cans, Coca-Colas, car crashes, wallpaper cows, camouflage, and celebrities — are currently on view in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's blockbuster summer show, "The Prints of Andy Warhol."
Faces of Marilyn Monroe cover the far right wall of the exhibition. These are Warhol's most cogent comments about commodity and how Hollywood packages its stars as products. A keen observer of color as well as celebrity and consumerism, Warhol captures Monroe's many personas with hues ranging from forest green to hot pink. The fire-engine red face is Marilyn the sex goddess. Color her brown-gray and she becomes a goddess with face-and-feet of clay. Bright-yellow hair crowning a soft-purple silhouette transforms Marilyn into Hollywood royalty.
Soft purple also backdrops two silk-screened images of Jackie Kennedy mourning her husband. The faces in the 1966 print Jacqueline Kennedy II are identical except the one on the right is fading, reflecting perhaps the end of the charismatic reign of Jackie and JFK and the passing of a presidency often compared to Camelot.
One of the most unsettling works in the show is the smudged, gray-toned, image of an electric chair sitting in a dingy, otherwise empty room. The leather straps have been unbuckled in this old photo, whichWarhol appropriated and silk-screened in the late '70s when almost all first-world countries, except America, had abolished the death penalty.
During the last year of his life, Warhol painted and then silk-screened large prints of camouflage. They're hanging on the far back wall of the Brooks exhibition. Some of the prints are government-issue green and gray. Some are bright red, orange, and yellow. No longer obsessed with celebrity or consumerism, Warhol is playing with color and form. He's commenting on the difficulty of ever really knowing ourselves or the world. And no matter how bright the lights of celebrity or saturate its colors, Warhol also seems to be remarking on the facile quality of fame.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: Celebrity and commodity still consume the American psyche, our prisons overflow, political rhetoric camouflages truth, and the lives of the rich and famous are tracked 24 hours a day on cable television and the Internet. As his iconic images encapsulate the world ever more powerfully, 21 years after his death, Andy Warhol proves not only to be pop art's "pope" but also its prophet.
"The Prints of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again," at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through September 7th
Like Warhol's screen prints, the works of Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir can be seen worldwide. You'll find her roughhewn, cast-iron figures morphing out of the walls of Icelandic churches, standing next to European boulevards, and leaning toward the sea in memorials to drowned sailors. This spring, her figures were in Dublin alongside the sculpture of Dale Chihuly and Henry Moore. This summer, in Memphis, they're standing among the oaks on the sloping south lawn of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Thorarinsdottir's lean, androgynous, life-size figures tilt slightly forward. Their heads cock to the side, expressing equal measures of awe, introspection, dignity, peace, isolation, and strength.
Take some time to walk among the figures on the Dixon's lawn, stroke their rough skin scarred by millennia of experience, and look into the shafts of translucent green glass that pierce their bodies at heart level. You'll glimpse your own reflection and see all the way through the cast iron to trees and grass on the other side. We are — Thorarinsdottir's art reminds us — both matter and light, dust and stardust, and an integral part of the mosaic of all life.
At the end of the lawn, one of Thorarinsdottir's figures stands on the other side of a small wooden bridge. This reinforces our sense that these creatures are making connections, bridging new levels of understanding, and evolving perhaps to future generations of humankind who go beyond consumer goods and celebrity to contemplate the whole of creation.
"Steinunn Thorarinsdottir: Horizons" at the Dixon
Gallery & Gardens through August 30th