We can't seem to get enough of Andy Warhol. Twenty-five years after the most iconic pop artist of all time died, his image, artwork, and influence are ubiquitous, especially as the monster Art Basel Miami Beach fairs roll onto the peninsula the first week of December. Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and Marilyns will pop up in the various booths; his onetime muse, Ultra Violent, will produce a laser show; even reps from the Warhol Museum will be around participating in several events.
The Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale decided to get in on the act this year as well, having just opened "Warhol and Cars: American Icons" on November 10. And props to it, because what could have been a rehash of Warhol's overly familiar, clichéd imagery is instead a refreshing exhibit, fun even. It reveals a side of Warhol many have not seen before: a thoughtful thinker and talented draftsman. Some of the pieces here will be immediately recognizable, with the telltale signs of his signature repetitions and silk prints; but others will surprise, such as simple black-and-white graphites and an ample selection of early works (they are culled from the above-mentioned Warhol Museum of Pittsburgh, his hometown).
Let's start with the theme. Warhol was a famed connoisseur of pop culture and mass-produced goods, but he is not usually associated with cars, the quintessential American symbol. However, as we discover here, Warhol took to this form of Americana as well, falling for the particularly good-looking ones, of course. On a placard at the start of the show on the second floor, there is a quote from Warhol explaining that painting had become "as much a part of the fashionable world as clothes and cars." We go from there.
On the right-hand wall up the stairs hang some really lovely drawings, many in black and white. But the introduction to the show is a thrill, an almost quaint watercolor from 1946, picturing a boy and his mother in front of a produce truck. Born Andrej Varhola to immigrant parents, Warhol and his brother worked on such a truck. Moving down this wall, one can see other special and different imagery make an appearance. There is a 1954 graphite on tracing paper, ripped on the edges, very delicate (some of these early drawings are even taped together), called Early Model Car, as that's what it is, in Al Capone-era style. There is an ink drawing of a car factory, again something that clearly relates to Warhol's early life in the Rust Belt. It's a melancholy piece, something again we don't usually think of when we think Warhol.
One color piece jumps out also as a little atypical, but not because of the fine red Cadillac that occupies the top of the drawing: Taking up the bottom of the space are four harlequins, or acrobats, dressed in bright pink, titled Four Male Costumed Full Figures, made from Dr. Martin's aniline dye. It's a bizarre and wonderful image.
Not everything in the show was made by Warhol. There are related works from other artists (and advertising firms), toy cars, and photographs of the artist. Along this first wall is a photo, shot by David McCabe, of a very young, brown-haired Warhol standing in front of a billboard selling a car. A much later photo, from Eric Kroll, shows him in a car with his art buddies Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.
But then more typical works emerge, works with repetitive imagery (his nod to the ready-made) and, most important, in photo silk-screen, a pioneering process he started employing around 1962. Some of these are still in black and white, like Twelve Cadillacs (a favorite model of his), and the stunning Avanti, a truly sexy automobile out of 1962 — nice piece of work all around.
In the middle room, four large monotone panels cover one wall, creating the most disturbing image of the show. Called Foot and Tire, the panels are all of the same image, of a tire crushing a foot, and only the bottom of the shoe is revealed, from 1963-64. Another doctored photo shows a car crash. It was during this time that auto safety became an issue, and public service announcements and ads tried to relate the danger on our roads.
Advertising, of course, was an obsession of Warhol's. He grew up and flourished during the original era of Mad Men. As the '60s progressed, his work — now all in color — would come to resemble ads, at times poking fun, at times revering this vehicle that was creating the most voracious materialistic society in history. Several of the most handsome pieces in the show fall in this category, a series where art and advertising are literally interchangeable. Commissioned by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery near the end of his life, Warhol re-created "ads" for Volkswagen, the psychedelic-colored prints of the VW bug, another iconic pop-culture symbol without doubt. As the gallery director Feldman noted, "Andy was always an ad man" who had an appreciation for "the sharply honed creative talent that was necessary to create winning icons for successful products."
As you move through the exhibition, you'll be accosted by loud sounds that pierce the galleries periodically. It comes from the only video — an 11-minute, 16mm film showing Warhol (now with his trademarked shock of white hair) painting and detailing a car, punctuated by footage of racecars tearing up a course.
In the middle of it all is a cordoned-off room filled with floating silver pillows that has nothing to do with cars. Called Silver Clouds, it's a pure homage to Warhol's famous Factory, the Manhattan studio where he made his art in front of cameras, made "superstars," and made history. After proclaiming "Let's make clouds!" he and associates fabricated balloons from a light metallic plastic that would form the 1966 exhibit "Silver Clouds" at the prominent Leo Castelli Gallery. Re-created here, you're supposed to have fun with the shiny pillows — kick the things, punch them around, just don't take them too seriously. That's the Warhol we remember.