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Andy Warhol,
Untitled (Self-portrait) 1978

Andy Warhol
: Work and Play
Fleming show plumbs art, artist, and era

by Tom Weaver

Wigs for sale in the Fleming Museum gift shop suggest something a bit different is going on at the university this semester. “Artist Wig,” the package reads. “Color: platinum. Flame retardant. One size fits all.” Ubiquitous as Andy Warhol’s work and persona often seem, it would somehow be fitting if students cleared the stock, and silver mop-tops started appearing across campus — bowed over a book at Bailey/Howe, slouched on a couch at Billings, hustling across the Green to make an 8 o’clock…

Bear with the Warhol dream sequence — how Pop! — it’s just a small reach for a metaphor to illustrate the many ways that “Andy Warhol: Work and Play,” the Fleming Museum show which runs through June 8, has made its presence known during the spring 2003 semester.

Students have had the opportunity to talk about trailblazing 20th century art in class, then walk across campus and see it on the wall as the artist intended. Through art/drama camps, local kids have tried their hands at the Warhol magic for making art from pop culture; adults got their chance to be like Andy at a screenprinting workshop led by artist Bill Davison, longtime UVM art professor. A series of events have explored Warhol and his times through lectures, poetry, film, and music, featuring visits from Warhol contemporaries and scholars.

The Fleming even landed Lou Reed, co-founder of the Velvet Underground, for a concert at Ira Allen Chapel. Reed doesn’t play many dates these days, but agreed to perform “a special little show” because of the connection with Warhol, who was a friend and major artistic influence on the Velvets. Drawing on recent songs or reaching back for a crowd-pleasing “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed delivered on his promise for the audience packed in the chapel pews.

A Call Wisely Taken

As she considers the many who deserve credit for bringing the Warhol show to the Fleming, Janie Cohen, the museum’s director, ranks serendipity high on the list. She traces the roots of “Work and Play” to an afternoon several years ago when she was forwarded a call from photographer and poet Gerard Malanga, who was Warhol’s studio assistant during the wildly creative and productive years of the 1960s.

Malanga was in search of LuAnn Rolley, an old friend who works at UVM, to let her know about the death of a mutual friend. Through a mystical chain of forwarded calls, he found his way to Cohen, who recognized the name and gladly took the call. That began a conversation between artist and curator about getting Malanga’s photos on display in Vermont. And, by the way, Cohen put Malanga in touch with Rolley.

“Work and Play” began to truly take shape when Cohen learned that Class of 1978 alumnus Jon Kilik, a prominent film producer, had begun to collect art. Kilik is well-known for his work with Spike Lee, in particular, but over the past decade has also worked with a number of other film directors, notably Julian Schnabel, who were focused on artists as their subject matter. Working with Schnabel on 1996’s “Basquiat,” the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist befriended (some say used) by Warhol, drew Kilik into the lives and work of artists.

Kilik says that as his knowledge of art grew, so did his interest in collecting. He was naturally drawn to Warhol’s work because of its relevance to his own life as a child of the sixties and seventies. Kilik’s Warhol collection numbered eleven works when he first offered it to Cohen for a Fleming show, but quickly doubled into a diverse collection that forms the heart of the exhibit. Kilik’s loan to the museum coincides with his 25th alumni Reunion, to be celebrated this spring, when the show will be still on display.

When Cohen happened upon several rare Warhol works in the exotic locale of downtown Burlington, it was as good as confirmation that the fates meant for UVM to undertake a Warhol show. Browsing North Country Books, a Church Street used bookstore owned by Mark Ciufo ’92, Cohen says she did a “triple take” when she glanced in a glass case and saw what looked to be very early Warhol drawings and prints — which included a rare example of his “blotted line technique,” the first unique style that he developed as a commercial artist.

The pieces, created by Warhol during his student years at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, had been kept for years by Stuart Williams, a college classmate of Warhol’s who lived in Winooski. Preparing to move away from Vermont, Williams decided to lighten his personal library and contacted Ciufo.

Tending his shop one evening in early March, Ciufo says he never set out to be an art collector, but Williams’s mention that his collection included “some cards” by Andy Warhol definitely caught his attention. “I knew they were special,” Ciufo says, “but I was taken aback because they weren’t what I expected.”

Indeed, amidst the electric chairs, soup cans, and celebrity portraits, the whimsical drawings of a dancing figure on a Christmas card, which is one of the first items visitors see when viewing “Work and Play,” is among the exhibit’s least expected and most intriguing works.

Creating Context

Building from the cornerstones of Kilik’s broad collection, Malanga’s photographic documentation of the artist and his milieu, and North Country’s rare early glimpse — Cohen strove to create a retrospective exhibit and programming that would show not only Warhol’s work, but the creative environment and cultural context that spawned it.

Serendipity may have provided the opportunity for the show, but bringing it to reality required essential support that came from many places — among them, financial backing from donors such as S.T. Griswold & Company, and alumnus Stephen Kelly ’85; and pro bono work on promotional materials and the catalogue from Jager Di Paola Kemp Design and Christensen Design.

As Cohen looked to open the exhibit’s programming, she turned to Malanga whose “studio assistant” title barely covers the essential role he played for Warhol in the fertile creative years of the mid-sixties. Malanga was the guy on his hands and knees pulling the squeegee over the large flower paintings or Elvis Presley portraits or the Death and Disaster series. He was behind the camera for the Screen Tests, a project he collaborated on with Warhol, or in front of it performing his famous whip dance.

Cohen placed the call this time, inviting Malanga to visit UVM for a poetry reading and talk. And on February 9, the Fleming Auditorium is at capacity for Malanga’s appearance. Waiting for the reading to begin, I scan the crowd, playing a game of find the poet, expecting someone who looks a little worn from the famous decadence of the era, or at least a man in a black turtleneck. It is a pleasant surprise when Malanga takes the stage. He’s aged well, wears a subdued flannel shirt, and as he reads his recent poetry, it’s clear that his creative vitality is going strong.

Malanga’s presence is inescapable in the Fleming exhibit — his photo portraits, his poetry, or his role in silkscreening some of Warhol’s most famous works. “Silkscreening in the sixties was less precise — more like a roll of the dice,” Malanga says. “Andy embraced the mistakes. He never rejected a painting; the mistakes were a part of the art.”

Visual Aids

At the Malanga reception, opening night, or through the exhibit’s run, there’s been strong student attendance at the Warhol show. Though the battles over Andy Warhol’s place in art history have long since been fought, Art Professor Margo Thompson says she has found a number of students who have a tough time embracing Warhol’s work. “There’s a strong contingent of them who really value good painting, such as the Impressionists, and they look at Warhol and react by saying, ‘This is just not art.’ They don’t see that it is any different from the world they live in.”

Thompson has a good laugh at the suggestion that such students are teetering on one of those, as the cliché goes, “teachable moments.”Actually, they are.

“Context, context, context,” Thompson says. “I try to emphasize to students the seriousness of the artist’s intent. There is a philosophy behind it; you can relate it to the world in a particular way. The artists are not just running a game or putting you on. It is genuine.”

That may be tough for some students or any Warhol skeptic to accept, in part because of the artist’s own irreverence and reticence about discussing his art. Put yourself in the uncomfortables shoes of this interviewer for a 1962 piece in Art Voices:

Question: What is Pop Art trying to say?
Warhol: I don’t know.
Question: What do your rows of Campell soup cans signify?
Warhol: They’re things I had when I was a child.
Question: What does Coca Cola mean to you?
Warhol: Pop.

Professor Reva Wolf, an art historian from SUNY-New Paltz, explores this Warhol interview style extensively in an essay that is part of the “Work and Play” catalogue published by the Fleming. Wolf’s key point is the notion that Warhol, whether posing the questions or dancing around the answers, essentially turned an interview into another art form.

It may be that Warhol’s evasion is inspired, in part, by a hope that viewers will come to his work without pre-conceptions. That would be a good thing. As Thompson says of her students, “I was very pleased to hear some of them say that they were able to set aside their own feelings and take the Warhol exhibit at face value.”

Those who do the same and take their own tours of the Fleming galleries will be rewarded with a thought-provoking walk through American culture both epochal and ephemeral, Birmingham race riots to drag queens.
“Warhol was such an American artist and really had his finger on the pulse of popular culture,” Cohen says. “He understood this country so well and helped us all to understand it better at a very crucial time in our history.”

For more on the Fleming Museum’s Andy Warhol exhibit, see
http://www.WarholAtTheFleming.org/index.html or call (802) 656-0750. Thanks to Janie Cohen for providing text on the images used in this article.