SENSATIONAL: Andy Warhol's "A Boy for Meg" series, on… (Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington, D.C. — — Andy Warhol, the guru of Pop art, reveled in a lifelong obsession with newspapers, especially tabloids and their garish headlines. As a teenager, he saved pages with photos of his favorite Hollywood stars. Throughout his life he packed hundreds of newspapers into boxes he called "time capsules" to whet the fancy of the future. He collected scores of fraying clippings about himself in 34 scrapbooks. But most important, he used newspapers, especially the front pages, to model and inform some of the most important works of his fine art. It is hard to imagine Warhol the artist without his headlines.
Warhol's news junkie obsession and its importance to his art are detailed with great care in a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington titled simply "Warhol: Headlines." The show, which closes Jan. 2, goes on to the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt in February, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome in June and the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh in October 2012.
Unlike a retrospective of all the work of Warhol, the exhibition attempts to concentrate on a single aspect of the artist that, in fact, reveals a good deal about him. Curator Molly Donovan of the National Gallery says, "the theme enabled me to tell a tight and focused story ... that had not been understood before." Donovan dates Warhol's emergence as a fine artist to a series of newspaper canvases that he created in the early 1960s. Until then, he had devoted himself to advertising design (including a lucrative campaign for I. Miller shoes) and magazine illustration.
In one 1962 canvas, "A Boy for Meg (2)," which belongs to the National Gallery, Warhol, using oil and egg emulsion, re-created the front page of the New York Post announcing a baby boy born to Princess Margaret of England. Margaret was a household name. Only a few years earlier she had given in to pressure from the British royal family and, while the world awaited her decision, finally agreed not to marry the divorced man she loved. She later wed a never-married suitor instead, and the New York Post was celebrating the birth of their first child. Both the tabloid and Warhol shared an excitement over celebrity.
Warhol's rendition was not a simple reproduction. He inflated the front page on to a canvas 6 feet high and, while he attempted to include every detail, his pictures looked more like drawings than photographs. Warhol was often obscure while explaining his work. John Russell, a New York Times art critic, once wrote that "Warhol operates behind a mask of inarticulacy." Yet Warhol seemed clear about mocking the notion that he served as no more than a mirror reproducing his subject matter. "I'm going to look into the mirror and see nothing," he once said. "People are always calling me a mirror, and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?"
In another 6-foot-high canvas completed in 1962, "Daily News," Warhol used acrylic and pencil to mimic the front and back pages of the New York tabloid. This work celebrated Elizabeth Taylor's rejection of her husband, singer Eddie Fisher, for actor Richard Burton. "Eddie Fisher Breaks Down/ In Hospital Here; Liz in Rome," the main headlines bellowed. Warhol removed all the captions from the photos, leaving details to the imagination of the viewers.
The 34-year-old Warhol was little known when he exhibited these works, and the idea of Pop art — the use of the icons of popular culture as subject matter for fine art — was little understood. His work was not well received at first. Dore Ashton, an influential critic, wrote that "Warhol simply lifts the techniques of journalism and applies them witlessly to a flat surface." But that view changed. It was soon recognized, as Donovan puts it, that Warhol had elevated his hoarded headlines "to the status of art" and had transformed his material "into something both grand and personal."
Warhol attracted more favorable notice with other subjects from this period like his paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans and his many colored silk screens of Marilyn Monroe. These spectacular works won him great success. His followers started calling him "the Pope of Pop" and "Papa Pop."
Warhol never abandoned headlines as a subject — even when he sensed that the tabloids were losing their impact. A few years after he emerged as a celebrated Pop artist, he saw the demise of one of his favorite tabloids — the Hearst Corp.'s New York Mirror. He also believed that television was replacing the tabloids as the source of lurid, gossipy "headlines" about celebrities and disasters. To keep up with this trend, Warhol and his followers began experimenting with the creation of television programs.