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Two White Wigs and a Fresh Look at the Old

December 24, 2009

This post focues on two wigs I’ve come to appreciate in new ways this week: the white wigs worn by Andy Warhol and Etta James, two accomplished artists usually not thought of in the same breath.   The shocking appearance of their respective postiches within 24 hours of each other in my world is a Convergence on an order Lawrence Weschler would appreciate.

I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum on a snowy day this week.  The majestic Calatrava structure looming large against the gray sky and the lake stopped me in the tracks I made on the footbridge long enough to snap this photo.   I was excited about seeing the Andy Warhol: The Last Decade exhibit for a chance to know more about the artist I’ve loved for many years and controversially called the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century.  I was not prepared, as many reviewers of this show have noted, for the new Warhol that awaited.  Quick story: I met Andy Warhol once, while I was in high school.  I went with my friend Sara to see Sade at Radio City Music Hall, and there in the lobby he stood, talking with a small group of people.  We went right up to him and Sara boldly told him that I was a big fan and would like an autograph.  He was holding a copy of Interview magazine which he boldly signed and handed over to her – I acted quickly and had him sign my ticket stub.  I was stunned.  Sara just thought he looked cool – we was wearing one of his signature white wigs.  Back to the exhibit.  Once again, like when I first saw his MOMA retrospective in 1989, I was asked to think about art in a whole new way.  The current show features a few of the enormous Rohrshach paintings, several of the collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a final room with several variations of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” along with a selection of works in which Warhol used a brush instead of his usual silk-screen technique.  To see the re-combination of so many of the concepts that have become his signature, along with the power of the floating heads of his self portraits gave me that fresh appreciation I was hoping for – moving beyond the cliches to sense the full power of his work.  The exhibition made frequent note of the power of his personal religious beliefs – something known to few before his eulogy and these final paintings were made public.  It was an odd sense of soul I’d never before thought of in his work.  I bought a small poster with a picture of him and the phrase, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.”  The word I used for wig at the start of this post speaks to that – its a word both for wig and something counterfeit or artificial.  In his journals, Warhol was known for presenting a version of himself, or of some character, and not necessarily his personal insights.  I’m fascinated by this – Andy Kaufman or Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on Letterman (see below) come to mind – and the question of what it means to be authentic – a question I’ve raised elsewhere in this blog.

Wig #2 is the one worn by the soul diva Etta James.  I’ve been enjoying watching DVD versions of a fantastic old music TV show, The !!! Beat, put out by the brilliant folks at Bear Family.  The half-hour show featured an incredible array of performers, from Freddie King to Esther Phillips to Otis Redding to Sam and Dave to Little Milton, but it is Etta James’s performances that have me pressing the back button on the remote.  In her exaggerated makeup and wig she’s quite a sight, and then when she starts singing, the world stops to pay attention.  Sweet Soul Music is always in heavy rotation on my record player (ok, fine, iPod) but to have the ability to watch these acts from their heyday is a treasure.

So what happens when the worlds of art and music collide?  What about when there is an artist whose work makes me fully reconsider, yet again, the power of art?  Such is the result of seeing Kehinde Wiley’s work.  Please take the time to click that link and browse his work.  He places photo-realistic portraits of young African-American males (and now, Black men from around the world in his recent work), often positioned in parallel postures of classic European portraiture, against intricate decorative patterned backgrounds.  In several interviews, one in the recent Juxtapoz magazine, he speaks about the power of this contrast – of the power of the male postures and the assumptions frequently made about these men against a background traditionally seen as female, all while revisiting and re-appropriating more traditional modes.  His canvasses are often enormous and I for one feel fortunate to have seen the one in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection.  This is an artist I want to follow and celebrate the authenticity of his voice and vision, just like Andy and Etta before him.

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