Arts & Theater

Art review: ‘Andy Warhol: Portraits’ at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum

Crocker Art Museum opens its first-ever Andy Warhol exhibit

Starting March 13, the Crocker will display 168 portraits from Andy Warhol. The exhibit was organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh
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Starting March 13, the Crocker will display 168 portraits from Andy Warhol. The exhibit was organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh

Your own personal “15 minutes of fame” awaits you at the Crocker Art Museum at the entrance to the major exhibition “Andy Warhol: Portraits.”

The anteroom to the exhibition of more than 160 works from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., is set up with a 16-mm Bolex movie camera from the 1960s that has been converted into a digital camera with which you can film your own “screen test” and view it on a monitor.

You can also visit a recreation of Warhol’s “Factory,” the aluminum-foil-lined studio where he and his numerous assistants and groupies partied while producing his paintings, prints and films. Assembled by Melissa Saiz of the museum’s education department, it’s one of many interactive activities accompanying the show, including portrait-making workshops for youths, live performances, Warhol-inspired parties, a symposium on Warhol and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and more.

The exhibition itself is large but quickly taken in. Mounted on walls painted with acidic colors, Warhol’s signature silkscreen and ink portraits of celebrities, collectors, critics and artists are brash, splashy and bold. Ranging from a wall-size self-portrait in a spiky, silver wig to tiny images of fellow artists such as Donald Judd, they are instantly absorbed like sugary, empty calories.

That doesn’t mean they’re bad – just that, for the most part, they don’t invite prolonged contemplation. What does intrigue and keep one musing is Warhol himself, a study in contradictions: genius or con artist? Outsider or the ultimate insider? Fine artist or canny businessman?

Good business is the best art.

Andy Warhol

Known as the Pope of Pop, Warhol (1928-1987) is arguably the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century. A dedicated Duchampian and a conceptual artist before anyone heard of the term, he was a seminal progenitor of Pop and continues to be influential. As one of his fans pointed out, there would be no Jeff Koons without Andy Warhol. And many of the artists he championed – Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example – went on to become major figures in the New York art world.

At the same time, his work was cynical, impersonal, lazy and, at times, slipshod. While ostensibly celebrating pop culture, he mocked it and the people who consumed it. He incorporated mistakes and accidents into his work and made people like it. His small portrait of collector Ethel Scull, a blurry mess derived from a photo-booth film strip, is a double-edged tribute to a longtime supporter. He used the conventions and methods of commercial art and delegated work to assistants, eventually eliminating any evidence of his hand.

His motives were blatantly venal. In his autobiography, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” he wrote: “ I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist ... money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Like Donald Trump, Warhol was famous for being famous. He made himself famous by first focusing on the banal aspects of American culture – Campbell soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and dollar bills – and then by making portraits of famous people – Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Judy Garland, Sylvester Stallone, Jane Fonda, and the most famous famous person of all, England’s Queen Elizabeth II.

In doing so, he gave new energy to what had become a dead medium, said Crocker curator Diana Daniels.

A Warhol portrait was the status symbol of an era.

“Celebrity fascination never goes out of style,” she noted. “It evolves with us generation by generation, through the transformation of media. Andy Warhol was an original in making us lust for what we already have in abundance: images of sex appeal, power and wealth.”

The commissioned Warhol portrait became the status symbol of an era, synonymous with beauty, power and wealth. Portraits of sitters were drawn from dozens of images snapped by Warhol with a Polaroid camera. Only one of the images was made into a final portrait. These were sold in pairs, a lucrative move that was regarded as a comment on vanity as well as a contradiction of the notion of originality.

It’s interesting to note that some of Warhol’s portraits are less jarring and more flattering than others. The queen, for example gets off pretty easy, in sedate, repeated images with innocuous colors, while Grace Jones’ dual images are raw and electrifying. For me, the Jones duo is one of the strongest pieces in the show. I also liked his ethereal evocation of dancer Merce Cunningham, his lurid portrait of Prince and his poignant self-portrait in drag.

For me the most interesting section of the show is devoted to early drawings and paintings that range from what look like classroom exercises to snide, outsiderlike satires, one of a figure picking his nose. Along the way are examples of his commercial work (male and female fashion figures, for example), studiously rendered portraits of actors and movie stars, and “Two Children,” a painting of outlined figures with splotches of tasty color that hovers between illustration and fine art.

Ultimately, the show left me feeling ambivalent about Warhol, but as the Crocker is the only California venue for the exhibit, I think it’s an important show for you to see and think about.

Andy Warhol: Portraits

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through June 19. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $5-$10; free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: 916-808-7000;

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