A Critic’s Notebook: Warhol in Columbus

“Warhol in Southern Collections” reveals the artist in all his pop glory


  • Courtesy Columbus Museum of Art
  • POP ARTIST: “Black Rhinoceros” from the Endangered Species Portfolio is a 1983 work by Andy Warhol currently part of the exhibition “Warhol in Southern Collections” at the Columbus Museum of Art through October 13.

J.T. and I hit the road last week to check out the temporary exhibition of works by Andy Warhol currently at the Columbus Museum of Art, an hour-and-a-half southwest of Atlanta. When someone mentions Warhol, images of Marilyn, soup cans, and Liz Taylor naturally come to mind, and these are certainly represented among the more than 100 works, but by pulling from collections across the Southeast the museum has in effect assembled a fascinating ‘core sample’ of Warhol’s work. You think you know Warhol, but he will always surprise you.

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The works come from all over - the High and art museums in Birmingham, Columbia, Jacksonville, and other institutions have lent key works - but much of the work is on loan from art-collecting couple Wesley and Missy Cochran of LaGrange, Georgia. They sound super-fun and interesting, and apparently Warhol thought so, too: included in the exhibition is a napkin from a Manhattan restaurant the artist inscribed to Wes as a gift.

I loved images from Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians” portfolio, a section of his work I was entirely unfamiliar with. Heart-breakingly beautiful, the silkscreened images of Sitting Bull, a Plains Indian shield, Kachina dolls, John Wayne, Annie Oakley, and a Buffalo nickel seem to tell obliquely the incomprehensibly immense tragedy of America: the work gives Warhol’s Marilyns, Liz Taylors, and electric chairs a whole new context.

The emphasis is on late work, but early work is represented in a 1956 set of charming lithographs from the Birmingham Museum entitled “In the Bottom of my Garden.” The soup cans were still a few years off in 1956, but the lovely, playful images nonetheless show how Warhol was already exploring ways to transgress the boundaries between fine and commercial art. Endangered species, Ikabana flowers, reigning queens, famous Jews of the 20th Century, Joseph Bueys, an image of Mao photocopied so many times it’s incomprehensible (from the collection of the High, a gift of Robert Rauschenberg) are all reminders of how productive Warhol was and how wide-ranging his interests were: a looping video of interview and archival footage in one of the rooms reminds us he was a performance artist, as well. He took in and produced as much as he possibly could and made it look easy (perhaps that’s a working definition of “genius”). Warhol mischievously joked that he wanted to reduce artistic production to machinelike efficiency. In some ways, he came pretty close, but of course, as the exhibit proves, he never removed the painterly touch or the beauty and aesthetic rigor of the object itself. Check it out at the Columbus Museum through October 13.