Stockbridge’s very odd couple: A Rockwell-Warhol retrospective

  • When Warhol discovered silkscreening, a technique with origins in making wallpaper designs, there was no turning back. He used high contrast film and to heighten the flat white areas he would often apply makeup to his subjects. Self-portrait, 1967. Courtesy the Andy Warhol Foundation

  • Rockwell in his well-kept studio in 1960. The building is now on the museum’s grounds. Although he maintained an image as a modest country painter, he was a world traveler with a sophisticated knowledge of classical art and current trends. (All rights reserved.) Courtesy Bill Scovill

  • The artist James Warhola has fond memories of his father, with family, frequently arriving unannounced at Andy Warhol’s 16½-footwide, five-story brownstone house. It was filled with art objects and 25 Siamese cats named “Sam.” (All rights reserved.) Courtesy James Warhola

  • Both Rockwell and Warhol shared a social conscience. In the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was meeting with violent resistance in the South, Warhol created a painting of a race riot. When three Civil Rights workers were slain by the Ku Klux Klan, Rockwell created this 1965 image for “Look” magazine. Courtesy the Rockwell Collection

  • James Warhola stands next to portrait of his uncle Andy Warhol. For The Recorder/Don Stewart

  • Warhola said that his uncle, when among family and friends, dropped his shyness, told funny stories and loved to laugh. Warhol in 1965 sans the silver wig, sunglasses and leather jacket, pushing a cartload of products which he catapulted to international stardom. Courtesy Bob Adelman

For The Recorder
Published: 7/19/2017 11:29:32 AM

“In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” — Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

A comparative exhibit profiling the works of the eponymous pipe-smoker and the shy, bewigged pop artist Andy Warhol can be viewed through Oct. 29 at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum.

Pairing the two under one roof is not the full-blown schizophrenia as it may, at first, appear to be. The two artists, working at opposite poles of the spectrum, had a great deal in common. Both were drawing images soon after their toddler period, and both enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity early in their careers. They were both workaholics. Each of them also relied on photography extensively in creating images. The paintings created by the two men are unforgettable, and each artist became world renowned during his lifetime.

“They both started out in illustration,” Jesse Kowalski said during opening night. “Warhol was a big adman in New York in the 1950s and won several awards for his advertising work.” Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) also began in commercial work, highlighting the glories of the Overland automobile, while also boosting sales for Piso’s Cure for Consumption, among other clients.

The exhibit was inevitable, given that before coming to the Rockwell as curator of exhibits, Kowalski served for 18 years as director of exhibitions at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, the country’s largest devoted to a single artist. He was joined in assembling the show by its chief curator Stephanie Plunkett.

An added highlight to the evening were comments by the artist and writer James Warhola, Andy’s nephew. The former has illustrated science-fiction books, children’s stories and for more than 30 years has contributed to MAD magazine.

“As a youngster, I remember watching my uncle illustrating shoes. He was very busy and I’d watch him late at night when we’d visit,” Warhola said. “I kind of got ‘the bug’ that way. I wanted to be an illustrator like him.”

With side-by-side comparisons of subjects, ranging from Richard Nixon and Jackie Kennedy to rock stars, as well as videos and semi-historic documents, the comprehensive exhibit leaves little untouched. Under glass, the artists’ paint-spattered studio garb is also displayed. Rockwell favored a corduroy shirt, chinos and Keds sneakers, while Warhol wore a striped French sailor’s shirt, black pants and low-cut Beatle boots.

Up from poverty

In an autobiography, Rockwell wrote that he was born in New York in a “shabby brownstone.” His father worked as an office manager for a textile firm, and family life was comfortable. They frequently fled the city and the artist wrote that he had “no bad memories of my summers in the country. (That) had a lot to do with what I painted later on.”

Rockwell dropped out of school in his sophomore year and enrolled in art classes. Colleagues called him “the monk,” due to his seriousness, and soon he became known as “the boy illustrator.” In time, he was earning more annually than the president of the United States.

Warhol was born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian parents and learned English as a second language. In childhood, Warhol was afflicted with Sydenham’s chorea (St. Vitus’s Dance), which causes spasms in the arms and legs. The disease left him with blotchy skin, a large nose and sensitivity to light. This explains his persistent use of sunglasses and a commonality with the late crooner Frank Sinatra. They both routinely wore makeup, and both had wigs for every occasion.

Warhol’s father worked in a coal mine and died young from drinking contaminated water. Warhol was 13 at the time, and his death plunged the family into poverty. What changed his life was that his dad had earmarked the family’s savings for his further education. Warhol took courses at what is now known as Carnegie Mellon University.

Soon, the shy, bespectacled and frail artist was living in New York and was known as “Raggedy Andy” because of his frayed clothes and worn shoes. Early on, an apparent typographical error dropped the last “a” from his name, Warhola, and Warhol embraced the error.

He made waves with his innovative newspaper ads for shoes, and also added to his income in the late 1950s and early 1960s by creating window displays for fashion stores. Other young artists, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, also dressed windows and condescended to Warhol and his effeminate clique, calling them “staple gun queens.”

Matt Wrbican, an archivist for the Warhol Museum, said that at that time Warhol was “realizing his true nature as a gay man at a time when it was not merely unfashionable, but also illegal.”

The business persona

Whereas every photograph of Rockwell from his youth in the U.S. Navy to later years is easily identifiable, Warhol undertook a sea of change in the early 1960s. He no longer looked like a bookish librarian. He now wore the trademark silver wig, sometimes painted, dark glasses and leather.

In 1962, he made pop cultural history with his first solo show, displaying 32 Campbell’s soup can images.

A reporter once asked Warhol why he was absorbed with creating images that weren’t original.

“Because it’s not original … it’s easier to do,” he said in a timid monotone.

The collection is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which had once denied him exhibition space.

Many of the older generation would consider the artist to be an energetic eccentric. He made more than a dozen devastatingly uninteresting films, authored books, founded Interview magazine, managed the rock group The Velvet Underground, served as host for a local cable show, and even served as a model for hair products.

He was also an obsessive collector, filling his Lexington Avenue brownstone with cigar store Indians, carousel horses, statues, jewels and antique effluvia. There were also cats. Lots of cats.

“It was like living in an amusement park,” James Warhola noted. His father Paul (Andy’s brother) often took the family for surprise visit to Warhol’s brownstone.

“I think he was truly very shy and awkward with strangers,” Warhola said. “To his close friends and family he was really conversational. He liked to laugh a lot. He had a lot of personality.”

Warhola noted, however, that when a business call came in during these family get-togethers, his uncle would then briefly transform into the persona of “Andy Warhol.”

There are many surprises regarding the celebrity-and-death-obsessed artist. He was devoutly Catholic and attended church daily. He would work at the soup kitchens and was also philanthropic to needy causes.

An LSD session

The exhibit displays two Rockwell works owned by Warhol, a small oil painting of Jackie Kennedy and a large print of Santa Claus. The artist also attended at least one Rockwell show and enthused that the painter was “a precursor to the hyper-realists.”

Nearby are two Warhol high-contrast silkscreens of the former First Lady. In one, from the fated Dallas trip, she smiles radiantly prior to the motorcade. Another print depicts her as a mourning widow and the change is understandably haunting.

“It shows the contrast in the mood of America. It’s almost all in black and blue,” Plunkett, the show’s co-curator said. “The silkscreen technique is really a commercial technique, and (Warhol) is actually bringing that to high art.”

You’re informed that when Rockwell painted one of several renderings of Richard Nixon, he removed the future president’s jowls, added to his hairline and narrowed his ski-jump nose.

Juxtaposed to this is a silk screen Warhol gifted to the 1972 George McGovern campaign. With a flare of colors, the late president is depicted as mildly satanic. Coincidentally, from that time forward, the artist’s tax returns were audited annually.

At Warhol’s short-lived studio, “The Factory,” amidst the needle users and drag queens you might see the surrealist Salvador Dali, Jane Fonda or Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger. A silk screen of the singer captures raw action, and it seems at first glance that Jagger’s eyes have been blotted out.

Nearby is a 1960s album cover by Rockwell, which bluesmen Al Kooper and the late Mike Bloomfield commissioned the artist to paint.

Plunkett said that for the session, one of the two musicians took LSD “and became effusive about having a visit” from the Stockbridge resident.

“Rockwell later said that they were the most interesting people he’d ever painted,” she noted.

“Uncle Andy”

It’s been said that Rockwell was elevating populist images into fine art, while Warhol was using fine art to create populist images.

Warhola was asked what he hoped visitors would take away from the show.

“As far as the Rockwell/Warhol combination, I think it will make people think about illustration versus fine art,” he said. “Why are they different? What are their purposes? (Warhol) would have said, ‘It’s all the same.’”

Before parting, Warhola told another story about his uncle. In 1968, Warhol was hospitalized after being shot by a delusional actress. During this period, Warhola was sifting through painted self-portraits of his uncle at his brownstone and asked if he could have one.

“He yelled at me ‘No Jamie!’ They’re really important. They’re for a show. No! Don’t touch anything there,’” the artist recalled. Upon later reflection, Warhola guessed that his uncle, seriously wounded, feared that he would soon die.

Two days later, Warhol called and said that his young nephew could have the painting.

“He signed it ‘Uncle Andy’ with some hearts drawn in,” Warhola said. “I still have it. It can probably buy me a home somewhere.”

“Inventing America: Rockwell & Warhol” on display through Oct. 29. The 96-page exhibition catalogue is $25. Museum open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults $20; seniors $18; college students with identification $10; age 18 and under free. Directions: From Stockbridge’s Main Street, signs direct you to Route 102 west. Within two miles take a left onto Route 183 south.

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