Untitled (Self-portrait) 1978
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 Warhols 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 oclock
Bear with the Warhol dream sequence how Pop! its
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 doesnt 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.
Call Wisely Taken
As she considers the many who deserve credit for bringing the Warhol
show to the Fleming, Janie Cohen, the museums 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 Warhols
studio assistant during the wildly creative and productive years of
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 Malangas 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 1996s
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 Warhols work because of
its relevance to his own life as a child of the sixties and seventies.
Kiliks 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. Kiliks 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 Warhols 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 Williamss 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 werent 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 exhibits least expected and most intriguing works.
Building from the cornerstones of Kiliks broad collection, Malangas
photographic documentation of the artist and his milieu, and North Countrys
rare early glimpse Cohen strove to create a retrospective exhibit
and programming that would show not only Warhols 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 exhibits 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
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 Malangas 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. Hes aged well, wears a subdued flannel
shirt, and as he reads his recent poetry, its clear that his creative
vitality is going strong.
Malangas presence is inescapable in the Fleming exhibit
his photo portraits, his poetry, or his role in silkscreening some of
Warhols 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.
At the Malanga reception, opening night, or through the exhibits
run, theres been strong student attendance at the Warhol show.
Though the battles over Andy Warhols 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 Warhols work.
Theres 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 dont 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,
Context, context, context, Thompson says. I try to
emphasize to students the seriousness of the artists 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
That may be tough for some students or any Warhol skeptic to accept,
in part because of the artists 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 dont know.
Question: What do your rows of Campell soup cans signify?
Warhol: Theyre things I had when I was a child.
Question: What does Coca Cola mean to you?
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. Wolfs 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 Warhols 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 Museums 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.