Last Thursday, the Birmingham Museum of Art briefly unveiled six never-before-seen prints by Andy Warhol, which will remain in storage at the museum until they find a permanent home at UAB’s new art institute, set to open to the public early next year.
A Pittsburgh native, Warhol had few connections to the “Pittsburgh of the South” — his friend Charles W. Ireland, a longtime president of Vulcan Materials, was one — and only depicted the city once, in a 1964 silkscreen print entitled Birmingham Race Riot that repurposed the iconic photograph of a police dog attacking a black protestor. As perhaps the single most important arbiter of New York cool during his lifetime, it’s safe to say that Warhol had a fundamentally different experience in the ‘60s than did explosively violent, battle-scarred Birmingham.
Indeed, at first glance, Warhol seems like an odd choice to become a critical addition to Birmingham’s burgeoning art scene. But delving a bit deeper, it becomes clear that Warhol’s legacy and his prints — along with the hyper-modern art institute that will one day house them — could have a massive impact on Birmingham culture.
The Pope of Pop
Infamously described by Gore Vidal as “the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60,” Warhol and his career were defined by the apparent ease that came with making his work, to the point of referring to his studio in the 1960s as the Factory. Yet this reputation — much of it cultivated by Warhol himself – belies the intense drive, printmaking mastery and singular style the artist brought to his work.
All of those qualities are readily on display in the six prints the Andy Warhol Foundation gifted to UAB’s new art institute. Ranging from 1971 to 1987, the prints reflect the inimitable character of Warhol’s studio, encompassing all the vivid color and slick veneer of Times Square and Hollywood. (About Hollywood, Warhol once characteristically said that “Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”)
“As many of these as I’ve seen, having fresh eyes to see a Warhol print reminds you just how dynamic, how lush they really are,” said Michael Straus, chairman of the board for the Andy Warhol Foundation. A Birmingham resident for 18 years, Straus oversaw the donation of the prints to the UAB gallery, which was in consideration for the gift due to 150 Polaroid photos by Warhol that the foundation had already donated to the gallery nearly a decade ago.
The prints themselves include a playfully snide “portrait” of Richard Nixon commissioned by the McGovern campaign in 1972, as well as a cartoonish hammer and sickle, a portrait of German performance artist Joseph Beuys, and the highlight of the group, a Rasputinian portrait of Lenin in sumptuous reds and blues.
“He referred to himself as ‘deeply superficial,’” Interim Director John Fields of the UAB Visual Arts Gallery said, “but those prints we got donated are largely political, made at the height of the Cold War. I don’t know that he was really making a political statement as much as one about propaganda, though.”
That would be in keeping with the trend of hidden depths in his work, according to Straus. While readily acknowledging that he isn’t a Warhol scholar, Straus said of Warhol’s work, “There’s a very wide-ranging, perceptive commentary on issues like celebrity, myth, icons, belief systems – this group has certain links to political overtones that people rarely associate with Warhol.” In the case of 1971’s Electric Chair, which is conspicuously muted and somber compared to the other works, Warhol’s overtones are hard to miss.
As much as their inherent worthiness as works of art, the very fact that these Warhol prints are in Birmingham right now reflects another critical point of his impact on American art: philanthropy.
“Look at Warhol’s legacy, look at the Warhol Foundation,” said Guido Maus, founder and proprietor of beta pictoris gallery on Second Avenue North. “They give out amazing grants every year, millions of dollars, to art institutes and artists. And that’s the interesting thing, when you look at his process; it’s about making the work, selling the work, and you don’t think there’s anything beyond there. But when you read between the lines, there’s a financial legacy there as well for the arts. And it’s one of the most important machines in grant-writing in the arts for the last 20 years.”
An emerging art scene
Far away from the Kanye Wests and Lady Gagas who unmistakably bear Warhol’s fingerprints, there is a burgeoning art scene in the Magic City that also reflects pop art’s influence.
Birmingham’s artistic culture has had to grow a great deal to reach its current promising state, however. Fields, a Birmingham native, remembers the Birmingham art scene as both fractious and insular when he was trying to break into it as a young artist, and he wasn’t the only one. Local artist Paul Cordes Wilm recalled that “Back then, it was like everyone was on their own. … A lot of artists didn’t want to scratch each other’s back. It’s working now because we’re all working together.”
Despite the apparently limited ceiling for Birmingham art in the late ‘90s and early 2000s – with commercial representation largely limited to the now-defunct Bare Hands Gallery and Forest Park’s enduring Naked Art Gallery – Fields saw the beginnings of a kind of Birmingham style. “Doug Baulos was kind of the Birmingham artist when I was a kid, and I saw his work kind of trickle down to lots and lots of people,” Fields said.
In the work of Wilm and others, Fields saw the influence of early pop artists (and Warhol contemporaries) Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell, who repurposed mundane objects into assemblages and collages of art. That sense of whimsy and magical possibility lives on in the “recycled” art of Wilm, the retro-futurist “corrected paintings” of John Lytle Wilson and the colorful, dreamlike works of Naked Art proprietor Véronique Vanblaere, to name just a few.
In 2003, Fields went to grad school in New Orleans, where he lived for five years. “There was always a sense in New Orleans, with so many good artists and so many good galleries, that if something good happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. It felt like a community,” Fields said.
Fields acknowledges that his perception of Birmingham’s arts scene may have been skewed because of his youth, but he feels that “there’s more of a sense of pride about Birmingham among people [in their 20s and 30s] than ever. Now I see more people opting to stay here and try and make it better rather than try and make their mark somewhere else. I personally feel like I’m making more of a difference here than if I’d gone off to New York.”
For his part, Wilm agrees, citing the influence of festivals like Artwalk in encouraging an art scene, consciously or unconsciously: “Now it’s a full-fledged scene. … The fact that Birmingham has gotten its [act] together has led to it thriving. You don’t have to aim anywhere else but Birmingham. That’s true for me, anyway. And it’s definitely truer than it was 10 years ago.” Echoing Fields’ experience in New Orleans, Wilm also feels that more Birmingham artists buy into the “rising tide lifts all boats” idea of communal success than ever.
“I think for the first time ever, probably in the history of Birmingham, I leave town and I meet people who have heard of some of the shows we’re having in town,” Fields said. “They know about beta pictoris, they know about UAB, they know about what’s happening at the BMA. … We’re getting a level of attention outside of Birmingham that we’ve never had, ever.”
A racing machine
If what Fields says is true, then UAB’s new Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, which will be located across 10th Avenue from the Alys Stephens Center, may well be the feather in Birmingham’s cap, both in terms of internal growth and external reputation.
Compared to the modest environs of UAB’s old Visual Arts Gallery, the new institute is “a racing machine of a gallery space,” according to beta pictoris owner Maus. “It’s going to be a serious playground for the arts, if they want it to be,” he added. “As a visual arts institution, to be a regional player, you have to get national attention, which leads to regional credibility. You can invite serious shows, and you can convince commercial galleries and other institutions to collaborate with you. That’s the alpha and omega to everything: credibility.”
Like the retro-futurist themes that are so common in Birmingham art, the new art institute hearkens to a modern ideal of sleek, dynamic design. At 26,000 square feet, it’s also big; the institute will have space for three galleries, which will afford its curators a great deal of versatility when programming for the future. The extra space should also be a boon for collaboration with the BMA, Alys Stephens, Space One Eleven, beta pictoris and other galleries, Fields said.
It should also give Birmingham a full-time source of contemporary art, raising its national profile. “There’s definitely a void in Birmingham for a serious museum-level contemporary arts institution,” Fields said. “We do have the Museum, and they do great contemporary shows, but they’re not exclusively dedicated to contemporary art.” Fields’ hope is that the new institute will not only emerge as a regional player, but also as one that taps deep enough into Birmingham’s community consciousness to create an arts hub on Southside.
It all depends on how the space is used, according to Maus. If the new institute fails to court sufficiently strong and exciting artists – or if its curators simply fail to plan ahead years in advance, as commercial dealers like Maus have to – then it could fail to live up to its potential. If used correctly, however, Maus believes that “if not a game-changer, it could have a major impact on how arts are perceived in the South,” making Birmingham a destination city.
Leading off with these vivid Warhol prints certainly indicates that the new institute is getting off on the right foot. “Just the fact that the Andy Warhol Foundation saw UAB as a serious enough collecting institution to warrant that gift is huge, and shows that we’ve come a long way in terms of how Birmingham is perceived outside of Alabama,” Fields said.
Ultimately, it was a natural fit, according to Warhol Foundation Chairman Straus. The established relationship with the foundation – along with the fact that UAB now has the ability to show the prints off in an impressive, state-of-the-art space – “expands the scope of how the visual arts are presented in Birmingham…and strengthens UAB’s role in the cultural life of the city.”
The new Birmingham
The late, great Lou Reed, whose first album with the Velvet Underground had a famous cover designed by Andy Warhol, reflected on his mentor’s influence in one of the last recorded interviews before his death. Referencing Warhol’s background in graphic design, Reed mused, “Consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that, with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, phoom! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket…fantastic! He created himself; you gotta love it.”
Though there are different starting points and explanations one can point to – like many others, Guido Maus would look to Frank Stitt’s work at Highlands Bar and Grill in kick-starting Birmingham’s food culture – Birmingham is undoubtedly going through a cultural renaissance. After years of apparent decline, the Magic City appears to have found new life, one that, like Warhol’s persona, its citizens have made for themselves.
“People in general are trying to reinvent themselves and reinvent Birmingham,” said Paul Wilm, who’s carved out a niche by finding the secret lives waiting to be expressed in the things other people throw away. “People take what they want to from the past and throw out the bad parts. We’re unconsciously trying to grow our second skin and slough off the old one…[and] in 5-10 years, people might not associate us with firehoses, bombings and police dogs.”
For a long time, Wilm saw Birmingham as having a colonized mindset, focusing on what it could bring in rather than what it had to offer locally. In his opinion, the Bottletree has managed to balance between bringing in nationally recognized acts and supporting local talent, raising the profile of local artists by having them perform in close proximity to indie stars. With the same approach, he feels the new institute could do the same for Birmingham art.
“That’s the ultimate goal: to have a vibrant enough arts community that’s connected to external art communities so that our artists aren’t leaving,” Fields said. “Every time we graduate a new batch of awesome art students, they scatter and never come back. [They feel] there’s not really anything for them here.” In tandem with the many successful galleries Birmingham can boast, the contemporary focus and potential national profile UAB’s new art institute could do away with that myth for good.
For Maus, who’s long been intrigued by the idea of how an artist can embrace or contradict the city’s stigmatic image, it’s an exciting time to care about art in Birmingham – for visitors and natives alike. “I am very confident that whatever level of financial ease Warhol would be at today, he would be one of the artists excited to interact with Birmingham – because it is Birmingham.”