“I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? Coming for to carry me home/A band of Fleetwood’s waiting there for me, Coming for to carry me home…” from “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” lyrics by John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.
There was a shiny black, chromed, white walled, 225-inch-long 1962 Cadillac Coupe de Ville parked in front of the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) for the special press and members preview of “Warhol and Cars: American Icons.”
I hope there was a heavenly early '60s era Cadillac waiting to carry Andy Warhol home when he unexpectedly checked out after routine gall bladder surgery in 1987 at age 58.
Warhol famously said, “I am a deeply superficial person.” After time spent in this outstanding multimedia show you won’t believe him: MAM chief curator Gail Stavitsky, who also wrote the excellent exhibit catalogue, commands the casual and the not so casual observer of Warhol’s work and career to take a deeper look.
With diverse Warhol drawings, paintings, photographs, and silk screens from MAM’s permanent collection and on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Warhol’s home town, ”Icons” establishes Warhol’s long and complex fascination with the automobile and America’s post World War Two auto-driven culture.
The show also transports the thoughtful viewer back to Warhol’s '60s — a complicated world where suburbia, highways and consumer excess — Cadillac sedans and convertibles being the equivalents of today’s Denali/Escada as the conspicuous consumption cars of choice — vied with a culture rent by racism, sexism, drugs, war, violence, and a burgeoning, anti-materialistic youth culture.
In 1949, after art study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) the working class, first generation Warhol positioned himself in New York City where he was an in demand commercial artist with plum magazine and record album assignments.
Warhol soon positioned himself at the nexus of the commercial and the artistic and the controversial — while far from historically accurate, the 2006 film “Factory Girl” gives an idea of life in Warhol’s Manhattan art Factory. (A wide eyed, young version of me heard firsthand Factory accounts from Mary Woronov, the cult film actress and dancer featured in many Warhol films.)
In an era when museums and fine art were still more or less the provenance of the educated and the elite, Warhol fast realized his goal of making art that everyone was talking about and, at least in reproduction, seeing. He entered mass culture with his hand painted blow up of the Campbell soup can, but it was his innovative use of inked photo silk screens that quickly became his medium. Consumer items — the Coca Cola bottle, the Brillo box — and celebrities-Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie— became his most famous subjects. He helped create the concept of superstar and became one himself.
The MAM exhibit’s anteroom establishes that this exhibit is both about Warhol the American icon and cars as American icons. In 1968, “Life” magazine confirmed Warhol’s art world celebrity status with a photo essay. For that feature, famed photographer Philippe Halsman, departing from his usual black and white style, experimented with color gels to create a now renowned, somewhat hallucinogenic portrait of Warhol that is on exhibit in this show.
The work, which deliberately echoed Warhol’s use of color in his photo silk screens, is on display against a custom made wallpaper based on the artist’s seminal work, “12 Cadillacs”, the 1962 silk screen ink on canvas which is the center of the exhibit that awaits.
In both her introductory talk about the exhibit and more fully in her catalogue, curator Stavitsky explains how “12 Cadillacs,” acquired by MAM in 1998, was the impetus for MAM’s ground breaking exploration of Warhol’s two sided look at auto culture: “Cars and automotive vehicles are among the comparatively unknown and unexamined subjects of Warhol’s diverse, vast body of work — with the exception of car crash theme within the Death and Disaster series of 1963-64,” Stavitsky writes.
If “12 Cadillacs,” originally part of a “subversive” assignment on luxury cars for the high fashion “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine is the artistic inspiration for “Icons,” then “Five Deaths” (1963 acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, pictured here) and “Foot and Tire” (1963-64 silkscreen ink on linen) fuel the exhibit’s power.
I understand that police academies still use these Warhol’s appropriations of unflinching accident scene photographs of death and dismemberment to train recruits. But Warhol spoke of his work desensitizing death, later noting his expectation that “Foot and Tire” would be seen as “a black and white design ... like dress fabric.”
This is a mad ride of an exhibit with films of Warhol painting a BMW art car and of Merce Cunningham’s 1968 modern dance, “Rainforest.” Adjacent to “Rainforest” in the exhibit’s “Silver Cloud” disco installation room hangs Halsman’s famed 1968 “Life Magazine” group portrait of some of Warhol’s Factory workers — Nico of the “Velvet Underground,” the artist Viva, Candy Darling, Ultra Violet and host of other artists, poets, actors, friends, and hangers-on who inspired Warhol and acted in or made his films.
There are late 1950s examples of car-driven Warhol commercial art alongside period Cadillac ads and manuals and more surprises. Among the surprises is a very young Warhol expressionist drawing of women crowding his brother’s Paul Warhola’s fruit truck, their exposed breasts more fruit for the picking. (“Women and Produce Truck,” 1946 ink and graphite on Manila paper).
Just go and please see Part One of Montclair Arts Talk—“A Pop (ART) Quiz” for a rundown of diverse Warhol-related MAM events.
IF You Go: “Warhol and Cars: American Icons” runs until June. The MAM is open Wednesdays through Sundays. See www.montclairartmuseum.org or call (973) 746-5555. It is located at 3 South Mountain Ave., Montclair, is handicapped accessible, and has adjacent parking. Nonmember admission is $12; $10 for seniors 65+ free for children under 12 and for all the first Friday of every month.