Warhol wonder of pop art

Fifty years ago Andy Warhol won the art world sweepstakes with his paintings of Campbell's soup cans. A Los Angeles show of 32 of them - one per flavor - made him famous about as fast as you could heat up a can on the stove. // The cans nearly filled the canvases, and have been interpreted as a type of portrait. It was a worthy subject. The cans were like kings that ruled in a new age of pumped-up commerce and mass-produced everything.

Likewise, the people portraits he had just started making trumpeted a new era of mass-reproduced celebrities. Movie stars and entertainers, like the cans, were populist and popular, and were perfect for the aptly named Pop Art direction Warhol helped define.

On the morning after his show closed, in early August 1962, Marilyn Monroe died.

Warhol wanted to memorialize the blond bombshell. He trolled Manhattan for a film still, found one from her 1953 movie "Niagara," and cropped it close around her head.

He had used paint to make the soup cans look machine-made. For those first Marilyns, he utilized a new approach he was pioneering: he combined painting with silkscreen, an industrial printing process. He created those Marilyn images on the same size canvas (20-by-16-inches) as his soup can pictures.

One portrait led to another and another. He portrayed well-known actors, writers and fashion designers, as well as the artsy, drugged-out, underground denizens of his studio, which he called The Factory.

A summer show of Warhol's portraits at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art gives locals and resort-strip tourists a chance to experience the full range of that most important - and until recent years, underappreciated - aspect of the Pop artist's work.

The exhibition, which ends Aug. 19, includes more than 130 images and was put together by The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, which has been innovative and thoughtful in creating shows that continue to fold Warhol into a larger world.

Besides portraits from throughout his career, the show includes photos of Warhol, photobooth pictures, his film "Eat" (artist Robert Indiana munching on a mushroom) and several of his mid-1960s "Screen Tests," which were brief portraits on film of friends and famous people.

The Warhol Museum set up the show to be chronological, so visitors could discern how his work evolved through time.

Heather Hakimzadeh, associate curator of MOCA, rearranged the show into themes. While the clarity of chronology is somewhat lost, visitors who may know little of Warhol can learn about the childhood illness that triggered his movie-star fixation, his schooling at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and his concept of celebrity.

Other themes include movers and shakers (Vice President Nelson Rockefeller), his inner circle (writer Bob Colacello) and idols (skater Dorothy Hamill).

Warhol is as famous as he is misunderstood. One popular misconception is that he couldn't paint or draw, so he had his Factory workers to do it for him.

In fact, Warhol was a well-known New York advertising artist before going after a fine arts career. Early drawings from both camps reveal his fluid, lyrical line in describing figures, faces or shoes in an economic fashion.

Early on, he repeated the celebrity portrait in irregular ways on a canvas, sometimes resembling a flickering film strip. His 1960s portraits also could suggest a page from a newspaper, as with the images of Jackie Kennedy on view from just before and after her husband's assassination.

The classic portraits from the '70s settled on the tightly cropped head, using a Polaroid image that Warhol felt evoked that certain something he saw in the subject.

Weird as Warhol was, he could do no wrong for an entire decade. He became a symbol of the Sixties.

In the 1970s trends shifted and his fame chilled.

Twenty-five years after his death - in February 1987 - Warhol's stock is back up. Part of that is due to the worthy efforts of the Warhol Museum, and shows such as this one.

Another reason: Portraits are deemed OK again. In fact, if there's any direction in today's art world, it's that same anything-goes attitude Warhol fostered back in the day.

An accompanying show called "I Like Soup" features a few dozen mostly well-known artists associated with Lowbrow, an art movement that borrows from popular culture, as Warhol did.

Also like Pop Art, these works have an upbeat or campy tone and are well-crafted, often using a drawing style akin to advertising art and graphic novels.

The show was organized by Hakimzadeh with guest curator Jason Levesque of Norfolk, a nationally noted Lowbrow artist. This is a "custom" show, Levesque said, giving a bunch of artists the same item and allowing them free rein to reinterpret it.

Here, each artist was mailed a plain soup can.

Chet Zar of Los Angeles covered his can in a Campbell's Tomato Soup wrapper, opened it, turned it upside down and sculpted worms to pour from it. That's Zar's comment on how Warhol opened a can of worms with his approach to art.

Diana Caramat, who teaches at the Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk, came up with the most elaborate piece. She turned her can into a functioning printing press and designed an image of the can to be printed off of it.

She titled it "Self Important Can Exploits the Press."

Caramat's prints are sold in the museum's gift shop, and any of these 34 re-created cans may be purchased on the MOCA website.

Warhol would have loved that.