In the financial press, it is customary for reporters to disclose their holdings in a stock before writing or talking about it. And so, I must preface this review of The Prints of Andy Warhol, now through May 31 at the San Jose Museum of Art, by revealing my stake in four pieces by the pop master. They were purchased a couple of years ago from Barney's during a holiday-season sales promotion. The pieces are actual cans of Campbell's tomato soup, which the soup maker, in cooperation with the Andy Warhol Foundation, produced in a "limited edition." The labels of these special cans have been re-imagined in four of Warhol's most famous color combinations: green and red, gold and yellow, pink and orange, aqua and indigo. Each can is "signed," posthumously, by the artist. I ordered one of each online at $12 a can, but by the time they arrived and I realized what fun gifts they would make, the edition had sold out.
I mention my foray into the rarified world of big-time art collecting because I have a strong feeling that Warhol would have liked these signed soup cans and their distribution via a clothing retailer every bit as much as the flood of exhibitions of his work in traditional art outlets. In addition to the show in San Jose, a collection of pop-music pieces just opened at the de Young and another devoted to portraits of Jews just closed at the Jewish Museum. As objects of value, the cans will never be worth as much as any of the more than 60 screen prints and lithographs on view at the San Jose Museum of Art (a recent check on eBay showed two cans languishing with no bids, even though the starting price was half of what I paid for just one). But as objects that speak to Warhol's interest in creating artworks that at once mirror and are examples of popular culture, the soup cans at Barney's were right on the money, although it's easy to imagine Warhol preferring WalMart.
Dutifully, the exhibition makes a case for Warhol's technical virtuosity with screen prints and lithos, but you don't go to a Warhol exhibition for a clinic on print making, or at least I don't. It's his choice of subject that matters, as well as what he does to the images of his affection. His Flowers from 1964, for example, are the opposite of sexualized and romantic flowers of the popular imagination. Instead of beautiful and voluptuous, Warhol's flowers are plain and ordinary; two of the prints in the San Jose show are rendered in plain black and white. They are, literally, wallflowers. Conversely, Warhol's dollars signs from 1982 are the opposite of mere symbols used to describe sums attached to commerce and trade. They are fun, happy and colorful, practically jumping and vibrating within the confines of their frames.
Warhol's dollar signs are also a terrific commentary on the art market of which Warhol was such an important, complicit and knowing player. The first time I saw these pieces was in 1982 when they debuted at the Castelli Gallery in Soho. On that January day, I had been traipsing in and out of gallery after gallery, each of which was hurling its best and priciest art products at an art-going public that was positively giddy for the art boom exploding all around them. By 1982, Warhol was considered old school, a circumstance he would soon remedy by taking up with rising art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. But here he was at venerable Castelli, riffing on the fizz of the overheated scene with paintings and prints of all sizes and colors to give the people exactly what they seemed to want: symbols of wealth to decorate their walls.
Some of the pieces in the San Jose show, like the three prints from the Hammer and Sickle series from 1977, remind us of Warhol's roots as a draftsman. Others celebrate his skills as a colorist. The six portraits of Marilyn Monroe, each more gloriously garish than the next, take our experience and expectation of the star's beauty past the point of no return, and a good deal beyond. And then there were print series that you had to assume the artist and his assistants were simply cranking out to pay the bills. His Ads from 1985 and Details of Renaissance Paintings from 1984 come to mind.
But not all of Warhol's late work (he died in 1987) was without virtue. Indeed, his series of Camouflage prints from that same year distilled many of the artist's interests in shape and color and line to their almost-abstract essence. The San Jose show gives us eight examples from this series to ponder. My guess is that these last Warhols, which are not dependent on one's knowledge of or affection for mid 20th-century celebrities, are probably more inspirational to younger viewers than endless screen prints of black bean, consommé and green pea soup. The generic, almost computer-generated appearance of the Camouflage prints are all surface with, ironically, nothing to hide, except maybe the fact that some people in the art world wouldn't give them a second look if they weren't identified as Warhols.
The Prints of Andy Warhol runs through May 31, 2009 at the San Jose Museum of Art. For tickets and information, visit sjmusart.org.