Behind the Silkscreen: Exploring the Art of Pepperdine’s Warhol Exhibit

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'Flowers' by Andy Warhol

A familiar silkscreen print of Marilyn Monroe hangs on the wall at the entrance of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, ready to welcome visitors to a display of some of America’s best known contemporary artwork. Pepperdine University’s art museum will open the “Andy Warhol: Life & Legends” exhibit to the public on Jan. 16, but The Malibu Times had the opportunity to visit the exhibit before its completion to learn about some of Warhol’s iconic and lesser-known works. 

Weisman Museum Director Michael Zakian stressed that the goal of the “Life & Legends” theme is to emphasize the personal side of Warhol’s works. 

“A lot of people have said that [Warhol]is commenting on culture,” Zakian said. “Well, that’s true, but almost all the imagery has personal meaning as well.”

For example, Warhol’s famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” — a 32-canvas series, some of which will be displayed at the Weisman — is symbolic of the survival of Warhol and his siblings when their mother was hospitalized after an operation during their childhood. 

“[Warhol] was the youngest of the three boys and they didn’t know how to cook, so his two older brothers made Campbell’s soup every day,” Zakian said. “For Warhol, the ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ reminded him of his brothers’ care for him when his mother was too ill.”

The “Campbell’s Soup Cans” will be on display in a room containing some of Warhol’s most popular works from the 1960s. The “Flowers” collection can be found adjacent to the soup cans, repeating the image of the same four flowers but in different colors on each canvas. “Flowers” is Warhol’s first series to be done in a square. 

“You could really turn [the prints] any way you wanted,” Zakian said. “[Warhol] himself would even turn them different ways because there was no top or bottom.”

All of Warhol’s prints are created with a silkscreen printing method — a technique he began using following a career as the highest paid illustrator in New York. The Marilyn Monroe series — the “Marilyn Diptych” — was the product of his first experiments with silkscreen techniques.

Following his quintessential pop art series in the 1960s, Warhol moved on to create prints of cultural icons. Many of these icons symbolized his oppression as a child; Warhol was born to immigrant parents, and spent much of his childhood suffering illnesses and being bullied by his peers. 

“Growing up, Warhol felt much like an outsider,” Zakian said. “As an adult, in many ways, he was trying to compensate for that. He was not only trying to embrace popular culture, but he became popular culture.”

A brightly painted room of the Weisman with high ceilings will display Warhol’s 1970s cultural icon works, including “Muhammad Ali,” which features varying headshots of the African American boxer who experienced racial oppression during his career.

The room also houses the “10 Portraits of Jews from the 20th Century” series — a collection of black and white portraits of notable people of Jewish descent on colorful backgrounds. Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Gertrude Stein are among the figures included in the series.

“The Jews were also very marginalized people who suffered throughout history,” Zakian said. “Warhol identified with the Jews because they were on the edges of society, and yet, there were some people who became world famous.”

Works on nature will be featured on the second floor of the Weisman, including the “Endangered Species” series of portraits of endangered animals from around the world — another testament to Warhol’s focus on outsiders.

“The ‘Endangered Species’ series is often considered Warhol’s most beautiful prints because of the variety of color he used,” Zakian added.

“Andy Warhol: Life & Legends” will be used in the curriculum of certain communications and advertising classes at Pepperdine, as well as Zakian’s American art class. 

“Warhol blurred the boundaries between fine art and advertising,” Zakian said. “For example, he took an advertisement for Campbell’s soup cans and made it into fine art. Before that, [fine art and advertising] were two separate worlds.”

Zakian said the exhibit can serve as a bridge between Pepperdine and the Malibu community because Warhol’s works speak to people of all generations.

“This is one of the most important exhibitions [Pepperdine has] ever had,” Zakian said. “Warhol is such a larger-than-life person. His images have never become tired and his art always seems fresh and original. Almost everyone knows his works.”

“Andy Warhol: Life & Legends” will run from Jan. 16 through April 3. The Weisman Museum is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours of the exhibition are available upon request.