The blank eyes of Marilyn Monroe stare out at visitors from her honored place on the back wall of the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College, her skin a muddy yellow, and her lips and eyelids set off by shocks of bright pink.
This screen-print, one of a series of 10 made in 1967, was a gift from Andy Warhol to Jamestown residents and art collectors Ken and Lois Strickler, who in turn gave it to JCC last year. It, like the countless other images of Monroe that Warhol churned out after her suicide in 1962, is based on a publicity still from the 1953 film “Niagara,” in which Monroe played an unhappy young wife with murder on her mind.
This alluring, quintessentially Warholian piece is the main entry point into the small but engrossing exhibition “Andy Warhol: Acquisitions and Jamestown Nexus,” the final show organized by longtime Weeks Gallery director James Colby. Colby will retire in April to focus on teaching and to pursue his photography.
The show, which closes March 21, provides a glimpse into Warhol’s multifarious career through a series of enlarged Polaroids, video programs and photographs that portray the swirling cultural world that revolved around Warhol before his death in 1987.
The Polaroids, part of a set of 104 donated to the gallery by the Warhol Photographic Legacy Foundation, depict an array of New York personalities young and old. The photos, which Colby enlarged to many times their original size to give them a bigger impact, are interesting more for what they say about Warhol than about any of their subjects.
The sense I got from looking at these Polaroids (as well as those on view in the Castellani Art Museum’s 2009 exhibition “Andy Warhol: A Photographic Legacy”) was of a man behind the camera who was perpetually concerned with the way people were looking at him. Warhol was concerned with the actual qualities of the expressions he captured rather than how people were “perceiving” him, and you can compare the blank expression in the Marilyn Monroe publicity shot to many of the Polaroids – of which more than 28,000 exist.
Other photos in the show depict New York socialites and art world personalities like Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell and others, though none is particularly moving on its own. The exception is Warhol’s shot of a lounging Truman Capote and Paramount executive Jon Gould, which conveys the kind of desperate exhaustion with life that Warhol was feeling at the time.
A lot of the stuff on the Weeks Gallery walls – like a lot of the product that Warhol churned out – is the result of his compulsion to collect absolutely everything. Warhol produced an extraordinary amount of compelling art, but also amassed a great deal of detritus. This exhibition is composed mostly of the latter, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.
The exhibition also features several worthwhile videos, including a hilarious episode of Warhol’s TV show “Fashion” in which Debbie Harry of Blondie interviews the fabulously petulant members of British rockabilly revival band the Rockats.
For all the bite-sized insights this exhibition provides into Warhol’s working process and social life – which were one and the same – the most interesting part of it focuses on Jamestown’s reaction to the artist. After Warhol visited Jamestown to introduce a screening of one of his experimental films in 1968, the culture pages of the Jamestown Post-Journal exploded with a debate over the screening, the artist and the community’s treatment of the new. By the end of the debate, the paper had run more than 20 lengthy letters, editorials and articles about the visit – all of which are on view in the gallery.
The volley of ideas was largely civilized and free of rancor. It was a model community debate about Warhol’s controversial ideas, packed with well-reasoned arguments that, frankly, seem remarkable to us today.
This exhibition gets right to the heart of why we have art in the first place. The artist doesn’t need to convince you of his or her radical aesthetic vision, nor does the art itself “succeed” only when the public roundly embraces it. By prompting the discussions so well documented in this show, by chipping away at rigid ideologies, cracking open conventional wisdom and posing new questions, Warhol got the whole city wrapped up in his work. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to get wrapped up in it again.