An Iconic American Artist ‘Pops’ Up in Two Local Exhibits
State of the Arts
"Tompkins Square Park," by Nathan Farb
Andy Warhol’s share of fame has lasted waaay more than 15 minutes; his influence has spanned decades and generations already, and shows no signs of abating. Case in point: He was the serendipitous link between two otherwise wildly disparate exhibits that opened last Friday night in Burlington.
At Burlington College, upstate New York photographer Nathan Farb’s black-and-white, documentary-style pictures, collectively titled “Summer of Love,” captured the late ’60s scene in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Though most of the images feature random individuals or Farb’s friends at the time, there is a candid shot of, yes, Andy Warhol. One of three portraits placed in the college’s front window facing the street, it shows the artist clad in black clothes, white hair and that quintessential startled look — a paradoxically vulnerable visage for someone who wielded such enormous power.
Warhol’s background as a commercial artist fueled his ingenious elevation of packaging to the status of Very Pricey Art, and his repetition of images echoed the multiplying effect of manufacturing. Is it any wonder his studio was called The Factory? This sensibility finds yet another contemporary manifestation less than a mile from Burlington College, at the Firehouse Gallery on Church Street. Aptly titled “Decked Out,” that show pairs the original work of eight young artists with snowboards featuring their designs. The gallery’s back room also unveils — surprise! — The Andy Warhol by Burton collection, i.e., snowboards featuring images licensed from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. In Vermont, who better than Burton — and trendsetters Jager Di Paola Kemp Design — to marry ultra-coolness and capitalism? Or, as the Firehouse copy puts it: “Perhaps more than any other consumer product, snowboards have challenged the distinctions that have traditionally separated fine art from mass-produced functional objects.”
Curators Katie Attanasio and Christopher Thompson added two brilliant touches to this display. The first is a split-screen video featuring the silkscreening process at the Burton factory alongside vintage footage of Warhol and an assistant making a giant hand-pulled print. The second clever element is a stack of Burton product boxes in the corner, mimicking Warhol’s oversized faux packaging, which would come to define Pop Art. Inside the boxes, the tissue paper is printed with Warhol’s famous quote about being famous.
Not surprisingly, the Friday-night reception was packed with a younger-and-hipper-than-usual crowd. Burlington’s Tick Tick was on hand, producing limited-edition T-shirts, and a DJ gave the event a clubby soundtrack. In one overheard conversation, two twentysomething men studied a black snowboard with minimal, white design work and discussed — utterly without irony — how those designs might be applied to other merch.
Back at Burlington College, a sizeable, though quieter, crowd was gathered as well. Farb, who went on to become the pre-eminent photographer of the Adirondack region, held his standing-room-only audience rapt with anecdotes about countercultural life around Tompkins Square Park, and how he got his shots — the old-fashioned way. He readily confessed, though, that a third of his 60-some images in the show could not have been made without the help of PhotoShop — the original negatives were too damaged.
Farb, who is tall and lean, dressed casually in a T-shirt and slacks, and sported before-they-were-trendy nerd glasses. Laid-back and unpretentious, he aired gentle humor and colorful memories of the 1960s — part nostalgia, part cautionary tales — that seemed to appeal to the mix of students and former flower children. He also admitted that, after all these years, he still has trouble “getting the exposure right.” That’s not evident in these gorgeous photos, which are sharply focused, rich in tone, and filled with the tacit mystery of narrative content.
“What’s magic for me isn’t the image that comes alive in the dark room,” said Farb, “but seeing the things you didn’t see before.” And in those final seconds before clicking the shutter, he notes, the changes are “not necessarily physical.” Those unguarded human emotions, frozen in time, bear repeated viewing.