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Warhol revealed as passionate commentator

Warhol's 1964 "Self-Portrait," taken in a photo booth, captures his ambivalent nature as he struggled with his conflicting desires for disguise and public scrutiny  

In this story:

'Big Electric Chair'

Political trouble

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pop artist Andy Warhol's work may have seemed without direction, but a closer look shows him to be a passionate, if eccentric, commentator on American society.

"Andy Warhol: Social Observer," on view through February 19 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, features more than 86 of the artist's paintings, prints, photographs, plus features one film. The show explores the issues that captured Warhol's imagination, from the 1940s to his death in 1987.

CNN's Kathleen Koch reports on an Andy Warhol retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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Warhol's ability to raise questions -- and the open-ended quality of his work -- have helped make him a timeless art icon, said Jonathan Binstock, the exhibit's organizer.

"In the end, this is what really makes Warhol significant. It's his ability to accrue meaning over time, ... to remain relevant, because he doesn't give us answers," Binstock said recently on a tour of the exhibit. "He gives us questions. He gives us conundrums. He gives us a penetrating view of what constitutes who we are.

"What's also interesting about Warhol is the consistency with which he looked to social and political spheres for inspiration, for subjects," he said. Yet the artist avoided overtly expressing his personal opinions, Binstock said.

'Big Electric Chair'

The exhibit is divided into seven sections: Disguise, Death and Disaster, Politics, Advertising, Cover Stories, Celebrity and Symbolism. It includes art from some of Warhol's famous series, including "Electric Chairs."

"Big Electric Chair," detail
"Big Electric Chair," painted after the executions of spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, reflects Warhol's interest in news events and political issues  

Warhol painted "Big Electric Chair," the chair from New York's Sing Sing Prison, after the executions in 1953 of spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

"It's totally involved. It's totally concerned with current events and important political issues," Binstock said.

"Five Deaths," showing an automobile accident, is Warhol's indictment of American consumerism. He was fascinated by bright, shiny cars, yet portrayed the one in the painting as a "death machine," Binstock said.

Binstock said Warhol's cut-and-pasted images of tragedy, such as portraits showing Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, reveal not apathy, but engagement.

Political trouble

"Five Deaths," detail
In "Five Deaths" (detail shown here), Warhol indicts American consumerism by depicting a shiny automobile as a death machine  

In contrast, celebrity portraits the artist painted in the 1970s stand out with their neon colors, and some flaunt Warhol's political beliefs. The 1972 lithograph of Republican Richard Nixon, titled "Vote McGovern" raised a stir. Democrat George McGovern lost to Nixon in that year's presidential election.

Airing his political beliefs did not win the artist any friends in the White House. Once Nixon took office, Warhol said he was audited annually by the Internal Revenue Service.

Also in the exhibit are silkscreens of newspaper reports on the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed more than 200 people.

"It looks as if this newspaper was in Beirut, mangled as a result of the bombing," Binstock said. "This is sort of a meeting ground of hard-nosed journalism and abstract art."

Absolut-ly art
June 5, 2000
Rummaging through Andy Warhol's 'junk'
May 9, 2000
Lebanon: Promoting tourism in a troubled land
March 8, 1999
Warhol's 'Orange Marilyn' fetches $17.3 million at auction
May 15, 1998

The Corcoran Gallery of Art
The Andy Warhol Museum
Richard M. Nixon (Encyclopedia Americana)
George McGovern (Encyclopedia Americana)
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (White House online)

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