What's most interesting in this retrospective is the early work that shows just how damn good Warhol was at graphic design
With the Blanton’s “Warhol by the Book,” we get a comprehensive look at the artist’s lifetime of book-related work, from doodles he made in his college textbooks to a collection of Hans Christian Andersen-inspired illustrations Warhol made just before his death in 1987. Most of Warhol’s iconic, repetitive screen prints are necessarily missing, though there is reference to Jackie Kennedy, as well as an example of a Campbell’s soup can. The show also includes his mid-Sixties Screen Tests, 16mm film clips featuring artists like Nico, Allen Ginsberg, and Salvador Dalí staring silently into the camera. I’m guessing the curators have some good reason for including the Screen Tests, reasons which might explain what, exactly, they have to do with books, aside from the fact that some of the featured personalities, such as Ginsberg and John Ashbery, wrote them, but I’m not sure what they could be. The same could be said of some of the other prints, such as his 1985 portrait of Dolly Parton. Though the note for the Parton print does indicate that she, like Ashbery and Ginsberg, has written some books, it seems like a loosey-goosey method of categorizing. But I don’t hold it too much against the curators, as part of the fun of seeing a Warhol exhibition is seeing the breadth of his pop-culture fetish. I would rather see the Parton portrait – metallic and bright as a backlit film negative – and be confused by its inclusion, than not see it at all.
What is more interesting, especially to someone who has seen a lot of Warhol, are the early illustrations, fashion drawings, and book covers that are so unlike the streamlined, tongue-in-cheek images he would become famous for. This being a show focusing on books, I was especially drawn to the cover designs, such as his cover for Walter Ross’ The Immortal. It is a black cover with the all-caps title in orange along the book’s right edge. A man sketched in white outline stands, casually dressed, with his hands behind his head. The text, THE IMMORTAL, is bold and imposing, while the man, rendered comparatively small, seems resolved, even disinterested. I have no clue what The Immortal is about, but it doesn’t matter. The illustration is intriguing enough to make me wonder, and that is the whole point of book cover design. In covers for Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Aaron Marc Stein’s Pistols for Two, Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, and others, Warhol repeatedly manages fetching design combined with suggestive storytelling. His style suggests an incredible talent for capturing the jazzy sophistication of the era, but also a talent for pushing that aesthetic into unique and effective places, or in other words, making it his own.
That may be the big takeaway here, and speaks to the importance of including some of the less book-relevant pieces, such as the prints and the film. It is easy to remember Warhol for the Mao and Marilyn Monroe imagery, but seen in a vacuum we might take for granted the inevitability of those pieces. Looking at Warhol’s early book illustrations, whose subject matter and format fit more seamlessly into tradition, we can get a better sense at just how damn good Warhol was at graphic design, so good that even a drawing of a shoe for a fashion magazine is compelling way beyond its basic function: to sell. Even knowing what Warhol would become, one can’t help but look at the stuff he made when he was very young and think: “This kid’s going places.”