Warhol Fest in Brattleboro

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(Host) The Brattleboro Museum opens an exhibit of Pop Artist Andy Warhol’s images this Friday. Commentator and filmmaker Jay Craven takes a look at Warhol’s art and cultural impact.

(Craven) An unusual Andy Warhol exhibit opens September 28 at the Brattleboro Museum. It includes never before seen paintings, prints, and intimate photographs. The Latchis Theater and Hooker Dunham Art Center, will also unspool an eclectic Warhol film and video series during the next few months, curated by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Warhol was an unlikely candidate for Pop Art icon, avant-garde filmmaker, and glam rock instigator. Although he burst on the 60’s scene as the ultimate hipster, surrounded by celebrity and steeped in counter-cultural cool, Warhol was actually a soft-spoken, retiring, and almost recessive personality.

Warhol’s art drew heavily from the star-studded world of movies, even as his films defied all commercial sensibilities. His 1963 film, Sleep, simply trains a 16mm camera on the sleeping poet John Girono for nearly six hours. A year later, he did the same thing to the Empire State Building, this time for 485 minutes.

Warhol’s next steps as a cult filmmaker included pictures like Chelsea Girls and Lonesome Cowboys, films that featured apathetic hustlers, doe-eyed transvestites, manufactured superstars, and other non-actors hanging out with minimal consequence on the fringe of the New York scene. His greatest filmmaking success actually came as a producer of Paul Morrisey’s films Heat, Women in Revolt, and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein – pictures that benefitted from Warhol’s growing stature as a “brand name.”

His films never achieved mainstream success here, but they were popular in Europe and his influence can be seen in pictures by John Waters, Jean Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Bernardo Bertolucci. In fact, Bertolluci admits that the climactic scene in Last Tango in Paris was taken from Warhol’s Blue Movie, where Viva and Louis Waldron interrupt an amorous interlude with discussions of the Vietnam war.

Andy Warhol’s art included mechanically-reproduced images of Liz Taylor, Marlon Brando, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. His obsession with celebrity paved the way for an unconventional rendering of Mao Tse-Tung, in which the Chinese revolutionary became just one more 60’s icon, strangely stripped of political context.

Warhol famously quipped that “everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.”

This notion has become indelible in our media saturated culture. And Warhol did his part, facilitating transitory fame through his ad hoc acting ensemble, his orchestration of the New York celebrity scene, and his appearances at Studio 54. He also carried a Poloraid camera everywhere he went. If you weren’t already famous, Andy would gladly elevate you, by taking your picture, signing it, and handing it back to you as a souvenir.

Warhol seemed largely aloof from the political tumult of the times he so famously navigated. Still, he produced a stark image of an electric chair that speaks volumes without saying a word. His celebrity portrait of Richard Nixon, splashed with an array of vivid colors, is simply marked, “Vote McGovern.”

Warhol has been criticized for his pioneering role in celebrating style over substance. The Brattleboro exhibit offers fresh insight into the artist – and an opportunity to assess the dimension and weight that I believe his work carries, decades after its creation.

This is Jay Craven of Peacham.

Jay Craven is a filmmaker and teaches film studies at Marlboro College.

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