What do these movies have in common?
New York Stories
The Big Lebowski
Stumped? They all suggest that contemporary art — some of it, anyway — is a lie, a con job, or just a form of time-wasting practiced by the deluded. Lebowski's Maude Lebowski, Ghost World's Roberta, Beetlejuice's Delia Deetz and Gregory Stark, the performance artist in Martin Scorsese's section of New York Stories, are all either frauds or dupes. And that type is hardly limited to these movies. You can find it all over TV: in The Simpsons, Broad City, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Girls ...
It's not too surprising that this trope is so common, or that it should span decades. For many Americans, it seems to go without saying that the art world is a haven of emptiness and perfidy. Or, actually, it doesn't go without saying: It gets said, and said a lot.
How, then, do you explain the instantaneous, bubbly appeal of Where's Warhol? At a glance it's clear this book will entertain virtually everyone who picks it up — art fan or no. It feels as buoyant as the silver balloons that drift across its cover. Its concept hardly needs explanation: Just like in Where's Waldo, the bestselling kids' series it emulates, Where's Warhol challenges you to find one person amidst a crowded landscape. The difference is that these landscapes, real or imaginary, are all related to art history or pop culture: the Bauhaus, Studio 54, the excavation of Pompeii, a dinner party hosted by Salvador Dalí. And instead of looking for a goofy fellow in a striped hat, you're seeking a too-cool fellow in a silvery wig and sunglasses.
The book's focus on Andy Warhol is the key to its charm. It just wouldn't be the same if it were Where's Wassily? or Where's Willem? There's something about Warhol that seems fundamentally approachable, fundamentally democratic. Even before he attained the status of icon (that most democratic form of stardom) Warhol concentrated on subjects ordinary people know intimately: consumer products, Jackie O.
But however proletarian Warhol's subject matter, his appeal lies as much with his penchant for asking, "What is art?" in a uniquely straightforward way. Much of his work revolves around the question, "Is this art?" Is a Brillo box art? How about a touched-up photo of Prince? These are questions people love to ask — thus Beetlejuice, The Big Lebowski and so on. This is what the masses think about when they think about art.
The creators of Where's Warhol? are perfectly comfortable with that. Catherine Ingram and Andrew Rae, the author and illustrator, have cannily recognized the democratic possibilities inherent in the Where's Waldo? format. In these tableaux everyone's the same size and has more or less the same importance: Michelangelo and Elton John, Basquiat and Clark Gable, Josephine Baker and Blondie.
The artworks they've included are the sort everyone likes. They're bright, humorous and gestural. The "Garden of Artistic Delights" pages include references to Oldenburg, Koons, Hirst, Magritte and Van Gogh. Duchamp stands inside a huge urinal. (It's amusing to imagine some less accessible Duchamp work included instead — how about The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even?) Meanwhile, at Studio 54, the giant moon no longer sniffs from a coke spoon. The authors' please-everyone approach is particularly transparent in their handling of Yves Klein. Instead of showing, say, naked models applying blue paint to huge canvases with their bodies, Ingram and Rae depict Klein (who was influenced by judo) at a blue-floored dojo full of sparring pairs.
Rae's style is almost perfect for this project. Most of the time he's able to draw the book's tiny people with enough detail to be recognizable. But he doesn't have a fine enough line to portray distinctive facial features, so it's impossible to differentiate figures that don't have little gimmicks like Teddy Roosevelt's monocle or Picasso's striped shirt.
His colors rock, though. Where's Warhol? is that rarest of artifacts, a thoughtful work of art that will please — or at least entertain — almost everyone. And the authors have made it look effortless. Kind of like Andy did.
Thanks to Jim Gaylord, whose blog Art in the Movies provided some of the movie titles.