There’s a Trace of Genius in ‘The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol’ at Fullerton Museum Center

An exhibition of the work of a brilliant artist who changed the face of art, made during an arguably peak moment of his talent, on display at the intimate local Fullerton Museum Center. That’s a reason to celebrate, right?

In honor of Warhol’s notoriously monosyllabic responses to reporter’s questions, let’s just say, for the record, yes and no.

Warhol’s professional career began in the 1950s, doing blotted-ink advertising illustrations. That quaint process—inking a source drawing, then pressing it to another piece of paper while still wet, letting the artist make multiple copies and, if necessary, multiple revisions—allowed him to work fast and also set the scene for his later repetitive and appropriative work. An obsessive hoarder and cataloguer, he left behind thousands of drawings when he died, with the sheer number of unsigned pictures suggesting that many were more obsessive than deliberate, most never really intended to be seen publicly.

You can see the highs and lows in quality as quickly as the first gallery. Among mundane, often poorly executed still lifes of flowers or Cabbage Patch dolls, there’s a host of deeper, darker work, usually about death, shown as part of “The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol”: There’s a skull seen from a distorted angle, bullets in a lineup, a pistol with the words “HAVE GUN” written above and the threatening “WILL SHOOT” underneath, there’s a Communist hammer and sickle followed—with a knowing smirk from curator Kelly Chidester—by a multiple Mickey Mouse image and the face of Donald Duck with American flags for irises.

Few of the drawings (besides the more accomplished portraits of living people) attempt to create any realistic representation. They’re vague, a line here and a line there, just the suggestion of something we’re all familiar with; in Warhol’s ink, Ronald Reagan is less a full-fledged depiction than a grinning haircut under the Stars & Stripes. Warhol’s obsession with celebrity continues into the next room with many more portraits, but Chidester plays off the expectation of that work by showing those tired fantasies opposite several of Warhol’s more interesting appropriations from advertising.

The face-value, tongue-in-cheek commentary is inherent from the first picture: cheap $8.95 women’s wigs perched on the heads of smiling, sketched women; a ruthlessly clinical copy of a face-lift, layers of flesh being peeled away (Cosmetic Surgery); a non-Campbell’s can of tomatoes sitting glumly (also one of the few pieces with any color aside from black and white); a toilet with a 5-gallon flush; the iconic Absolut Vodka bottle; and a peace symbol—because even hippie political memes were designed to sell something.

Warhol’s cropping of other artists’ work is also eye-opening, narrowing our attention to the detail he found the most interesting and effectively changing the meaning of the piece itself. Focusing on the crest and beginning fall of The Great Wave off Kanagawa (that of Hokusai), Warhol eliminates Mount Fuji and the surrounding waters of the woodblock print. Losing the specificity of the landscape heightens the wave, making it larger, more a tsunami potentially threatening a waterfront near you. His isolation of the face and cascading hair from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus ends up giving her the look of a model from a fashion magazine, the masterpiece reduced to yet another celebrity portrait.

In the end, it’s the otherwise unblemished sheets of paper, without a single erasure or smudge of misapplied carbon, all executed perfectly without a single change of thought, that makes mewonder if Fullerton Museum Center is offering what the average person thinks of when they hear the word drawing. Although tracing an image is often typical for appropriated work, I think most art consumers imagine a drawing as the eyeballing of a subject, with the artist then creating his or her view of that subject, adding or taking away according to the way he/she sees things.

While “The Late Drawings,” on loan from the Warhol Museum, certainly fits the dictionary definition of drawing, there are very few eyeballed pieces and a whole lot more tracings. Not that either museum is trying to pull a fast one here: The publicity materials are honest, even briefly quoting from former Interview editor Bob Colacello’s Warhol biography Holy Terror that the late artist often used a projector to make his drawings.

That information, however, is conspicuously absent from Chidester’s curatorial notes for the show, leaving the uninformed viewer with the impression that Warhol’s drawing skills were better than they were, shoe illustrations notwithstanding. Included with the limited information accompanying the exhibition, it would give patrons a clearer view of both the strengths and limitations of both Warhol and his process. Context is important when trying to parse the fine line between skillful doodling and something you’d describe as fine art, even if it has a grade-A pedigree.

“The Late Drawings of Andy Warhol: 1973-1987” at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545; Tues.-Wed. & Fri.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through Aug. 14. $1-$4.

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