University of Vermont

Art, Athletes and Andy Warhol

A scholar of the artist – and a gifted teacher – brings Fleming exhibit to life

Grudin and Ali portrait
With its energetic brushstrokes and partially lit face, explains art history professor Anthony Grudin, the portrait of Muhammad Ali is among the most dramatic in the collection "Andy Warhol’s Athletes" on exhibit at the Fleming Museum until May 19. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Andy Warhol elicits strong reactions. There's "all of this angst about whether he was the worst artist ever or the most important," says Anthony Grudin, assistant professor of art history. And in the art world, just as in pop culture, controversy begets fame, fame begets legacy.

Grudin first connected with a piece of Warhol's legacy before he ever came to know his work. He was a kid with an interest in technology – he recalls writing code on the first computer his dad brought home, getting creative with the camcorder, the powerful sense that he could make maybe a moment of fame. Warhol, similarly fascinated, Grudin notes, called his tape recorder his “wife,” taking it everywhere. But Grudin says even at that age he also intuitively understood a major theme of Warhol’s: the fleeting nature of popular culture. Enthralled as he was by Star Wars, with time and repetition he felt the force fade.

“Warhol was really interested – and I was too,” Grudin says, “in all those technologies that allow everyday people to make culture, but it’s not as though you become a star as soon as you make your little video… I find Warhol relevant to students and to people in general because he was unusual for his time in that he noticed the powers of cultural technology. He was a pioneer in recognizing these new possibilities but also the problems they pose.”

But you have to fast forward from middle school to graduate school before Grudin becomes a student of Warhol’s work, an unexpected twist given that his adviser at Berkeley was closer to the “worst artist” camp. “He thought Warhol was the beginning of the end of art history,” laughs Grudin, who saw a more complex and forward-thinking figure – clearly evidenced by the series Andy Warhol’s Athletes currently on exhibit at UVM's Fleming Museum. Warhol incited critics who thought he was lazy and facile by giving interviews claiming how little he cared about what he did, how easy it was, how he did it for the money.

Not true, Grudin insists. “I think he recognized that challenging some of the traditional expectations around art-making and effort was going to be a provocative and therefore powerful move for him to make as an artist,” he says. “He had a very sharp understanding of art history and of contemporary American culture, and he pretended not to have that understanding when he was interviewed.”

Warhol also, Grudin believes, had the most powerful and nuanced views of consumer culture than any other pop artist. He was a critic even as he deeply understood the appeal – and the danger. Warhol’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe, before and after her death, is a strong case in point.

Owning athletes 

Warhol famously adored celebrities and socialites. Sports, well, not. But in 1977 his friend Richard Weisman, a sports fan and major art collector, commissioned a series of portraits of the era’s top athletes (themselves moving into the world of celebrity idols), from basketball’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, golf great Jack Nicklaus to tennis star Chris Evert. This collection of ten works, a combination of paint and silkscreen on canvas created from Warhol’s original photographs, is a rarely displayed collection that offers an opportunity for close comparison within an intimately related group – and that dispels any question of “lazy.”

The pieces could, at first glance, Grudin notes, be dismissed as vanity projects on the part of the athletes, the artist or the patron. “But when you look at them closely, as my students did last week, they’re just fascinating. He’s got such an incredible aesthetic sensibility and there’s so much complexity – you’ll find something to stimulate discussion. That’s why it’s so much fun to bring students to a show like that.”

The art history class he took includes students not just from that major but also studio art and art education – all bringing, Grudin says, enthusiasm and focus from their different perspectives. Students broke into groups to examine a painting, followed by rich discussion, of the intention and drama created by light and shadow on Muhammad Ali’s face, the observation that only the women (figure skater Dorothy Hamill along with Evert) are looking away from the viewer, whereas the men look head-on, O.J. Simpson even confrontationally. Evert’s femininity is the subject, they say, “Evert is the brand rather than her skill.”

“Every single time we have a discussion like we did in the Fleming, somebody will say something that’s either a great point that I’d never even considered before,” Grudin says, “or, without having read some major scholar who wrote twenty or thirty years ago, they’ve come up in ten minutes with the same point. It’s really inspiring when they can do that.”

For their part, Grudin’s students are equally impressed. As sophomore Amy Goodman notes, they’re aware he’s a Warhol expert, but it’s not intimidating. “He’s very good at making people feel comfortable talking in class because anything they say he picks out what’s good about it,” she says. “He never makes you feel like you’re wrong.”

Grudin’s class also had the privilege of a visit from Weisman, who shared personal anecdotes about Warhol, describing him as thoughtful and articulate, further dispelling impressions from his media interviews. “To have direct contact with people who were friends with artists and also see the actual art work that we’re talking about in class,” Goodman says, “is amazing.”

“I can tell that being able to see something like this in person,” Grudin says, “is something my students won’t forget.” What he hopes is that they’ll carry the message further: take the time to look at art closely – or anything that’s complicated and worthwhile.

“Look closely, and it will reward your attention,” he says. “I really value giving them that so they can take it to other classes or to their life outside of UVM.”