Whether it was to make an awkward situation even stranger, or to simply give them each an excuse to not bother speaking, Salvador Dali was playing opera music at an extremely loud volume during his initial meeting with Andy Warhol. Further adding to the bizarre tension was a feral cat Dali had picked up earlier in the day. I can only image the animal restlessly stalking the St. Regis Hotel room, likely agitated by Dali’s attempts to hold it and addled by the blaring music. All of this, however, was simply scene setting. Eventually Dali lifted a large Incan headdress, placed it on Warhol’s head and posed beside him for David McCabe, the photographer that had accompanied Andy. McCabe later related that Warhol was “guzzling back wine”, one of the very few times he saw the artist drink. The scene – and I mean ‘scene’ in an entirely theatrical sense – illustrates the shared preoccupations yet widely disparate approaches of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali.
Dali and Warhol meet again via museum and exhibit, this time without the cringe-inducing antics. Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. is a very new sort of exhibit for the Salvador Dali Museum in a number of ways. It is the first solo exhibit of its kind for the museum otherwise dedicated to the singular Spanish artist. Also, I don’t think it would be unfair to describe both Dali and Warhol as 20th century art history behemoths, the first time the work of such icons both inhabited this venue. However, Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. doesn’t end with these superlatives.
Perhaps it’s the nature of his practice, but Warhol was obviously an especially prolific artist and his work can be curated in any number of ways. Naturally, the exhibit would focus on the artists’ shared fascination with fame and mortality as well as their own personal notoriety and death. Thankfully, for the most part, it doesn’t overstretch in making the connection or divining similarities. Arguably, Warhol’s relationship with fame and public image is especially complex. He seems at once to have loved and loathed the spotlight. Art. Fame. Mortality. explores both aspects.
Biographical and more personal photographs can be found in vitrines or tucked into an alcove – they ask to be considered a bit more intimately. The exhibit features images of Andy young, Andy in drag, Andy proto-selfies: photographs in which you wouldn’t call the artist ‘Warhol’, but just ‘Andy’. They offer a bit of warmth to the often cold imagery like blood under the skin. More importantly, though, it lends some context to the exhibit that wall texts would otherwise fall short of.
That isn’t to say, however, that much of the artwork also lends itself to a bit of warmth and context. A drawing, for example, hanging near the center of the gallery is a simple charcoal rendering of a gun with the words “HAVE GUN” above the weapon, and “WILL SHOOT” below it. Completed about a year before his death, the drawing looks back to a time he nearly died eighteen years earlier. In June of 1968 Warhol was shot and later that day, clinically dead before he was revived when doctors opened his chest and manually massaged his heart. Elsewhere the stark red and black self-portrait that has become a postmodern art icon somehow feels less public. We find a famous and aging artist meditating on his self-image and the image of his self.
For many, I may be reading personal revelations where there are none. That’s alright. Art. Fame. Mortality. will also please those who simply are excited to see a Warhol in person, omg! While the exhibit relies on interesting curation, it pads it with Warhol Greatest Hits. You’ll find Jackie and the self-portraits if you’re after them. The exhibition even boasts an interactive component wherein “visitors will get the chance to experience “15 minutes of fame” when they star in their own screen-test video which will be emailed to them to save and share.”
However, they all lead to equally interesting lesser known work. A suite of late career drawings hangs near the entrance of the gallery. It was interesting to see at the exhibition’s preview some of the press surprised to learn the pieces weren’t prints, but drawn by Warhol’s hand. Further into the exhibition a real connection between Warhol and Surrealism as the pop artist reinterprets a painting by Giorgio De Chirico. Nearby Warhol explores abstraction in a series of canvases covered with a copper metallic pigment and adorned by a beautiful patina left from friends and acquaintances urinating on the pieces.
Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. is a successful exhibition. It does more than bring a high-profile artist and his work to Tampa Bay. The exhibition initially attracts with cultural icons, guiding visitors to work that may personally be new, and (hopefully) on to a deeper engagement with Andy Warhol.
Warhol: Art. Fame. Mortality. is on view at the Dali Museum through April 27.