Andy Warhol’s mortality didn’t end a run of fame that has lasted way longer than the 15 minutes he famously predicted we would all one day enjoy. The prince of pop art remains an art-world cynosure 26 years after his death at age 58; his work continues to evoke fervent responses, pro and con.
At any given moment, it seems, a Warhol show is on display somewhere in the world. Last year, for example, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an extravaganza highlighting Warhol’s mighty impact on 60 mostly big-name artists over a half century. Some comments left on the show’s website accused the Met of having defiled its mission by taking Warhol seriously as an artist. The work is “such dreck,” one of these detractors wrote. Other respondents praised the museum for honoring what one called “the greatest American artist.”
Warhol’s current ubiquity is partly a product of the mountainous quantity of art he produced in many mediums. But one set of works — his Athletes Series — has seldom been shown since its completion in 1977. So it’s a coup for the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art to have been chosen as a venue for these silk-screen prints of 10 celebrity sports figures.
Warhol started the series with Polaroid portraits he shot in his Manhattan studio or in the athletes’ homes, transformed them into prints and then splashed and slashed the 40-by-40-inch canvases with acrylic paint. His subjects include former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, golfing great Jack Nicklaus, NBA all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and figure-skating Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill.
The show came to Burlington as a result of a collector’s friendship with the family of current UVM student Lindsay Oliver. Banker Richard Weisman, who was one of Warhol’s many wealthy patrons, agreed to lend one of the eight sets of Athletes prints to the Fleming. Weisman had, in fact, commissioned the whole series as an expression of his devotion to sports, art and Andy.
Fleming director Janie Cohen expects the show to draw crowds. “Warhol is one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century,” she notes. “It may be tempting to dismiss him because he changed visual culture in a way that’s now so obvious. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the pop look.” But, Cohen adds, that shouldn’t lessen appreciation of Warhol’s originality and “his ability to project into the future of the culture.”
Visitors may react with a chortle and a chill to a moment in the show that does suggest clairvoyance. The wall text accompanying the portrait of O.J. Simpson notes Weisman’s comment at the time of the photo shoot, 36 years ago, that the former football hero’s five-day stubble growth made him “look like a criminal.”
Warhol is said to have responded, “Maybe so, but he’s so beautiful.”
In the panel hanging alongside another print, Warhol is recalled as having gushed, “Tom Seaver is adorable. Athletes really do have their fat in the right places, and they’re young in the right places.”
Warhol appears to have regarded the Athletes Series mainly as an opportunity to flirt and fantasize. “Andy thought the sports stars were cute, so handsome — he just hoped they would have lunch with him the next day,” Warhol pal Christopher Makos is quoted as saying in the introduction to the show. The artist was clearly no jock. It was Weisman who chose the 10 athletes to be memorialized, because Warhol “didn’t know the difference between a football and a golf ball,” the collector says in the intro.
Warhol also didn’t know that golfers use clubs. Nicklaus reportedly got all huffy when the artist asked him to change the position of a “stick” with which he was posing.
Abdul-Jabbar, in contrast, was reportedly impressed by Warhol’s erudition. As the retired LA Lakers center recounts in a wall text, Warhol told him that the canonical Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans were intended as “parodies of the nature of American pop culture.” Abdul-Jabbar adds that he came to realize “how Warhol’s images said something about who we are as a nation.”
The art market also has something to say on that subject. One set of Warhol’s Athletes Series was sold at Christie’s auction house last year for $5.7 million.
“Andy Warhol’s Athletes,” Fleming Museum of Art, UVM, Burlington. Through May 19. uvm.edu/~fleming
This article was titled "Sport Illustrated" in print.