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I love an underdog. Small town Massillon, OH has revamped Andy Warhol’s work, organizing a refreshingly original exhibition, and I can only suggest getting in your car for a summer road trip immediately.
Massillon is no stranger to celebrity, a condition that obsessed Warhol, and the town lovingly flaunts having been a childhood home of Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy. Now you may be thinking, “who is Lillian Gish,” but that just proves celebrity fleeting and history fickle. Lillian was the doll-faced silent screen actress that played ongoing muse to director D. W. Griffith, and is best known for starring in his epic Birth of a Nation in 1915. Having begun in the theater, Griffith made Lillian a star in the age of mechanical reproduction, and her face is screened, Warhol-like, onto the side of a building on Lillian Gish Boulevard, along with her life dates (1893–1993). Gish actually outlived Warhol (1928–1987), like the grand dame of pop culture icons that she was.
Passing this on the way to the Massillon Museum provides the perfect segue to its exhibition. The stark black and white screened image is not only a perfect introduction to celebrity as a marketing concept, but also the kind of paintings, based on photography, for which Warhol is known. Ubiquitous these days as college posters and t-shirts with Marilyn Monroe’s sad eyes or Elvis’s pouty lips, such works are art historical staples. Exhibitions fare well by depending on them, creating a co-dependent circle of advertising between the works themselves and exhibition promotion, but fail to add anything really new to the story.
The departure from this formula makes Snap! In the Photobooth with Andy Warhol and Friends so exciting. Photobooth portraits “authored” by Warhol and used as creative source material compose most of the exhibition. The inspiration for organizing the exhibition, and approaching the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to loan archival images, started with the museum’s own collection gem — one of only four working photochemical photobooths in Ohio. This Cadillac of a metallic shanty, purchased for the collection in 2010, stands as a sentinel outside the gallery doors. For $4 you can make your own four-image photo to take home and stick on the refrigerator for your own fifteen minutes of fame.
The small size of these images makes for an intimate viewing experience that is different from many Warhol shows, where large paintings or films push viewers back from the wall. In the Massillon Museum’s exhibition, the spontaneity of each sitter’s personality, as it flickers down the small strip, has a big power to charm. It feels something like laughing at a good friend’s joke. The spontaneity and directness are pure “Warhol” and make a welcome addition to what we already know of his straight-faced joking, love of costume, and general Factory antics.
If, like the artist himself, you are a star hound and want to see all your favorite characters, you will love the sexy, self-aware posing by Edie Sedgwick, with cigarette and chandelier earrings, or the glamour of Susan Bottomly (“International Velvet”). Exhibition organizers did well to lay out these confident, quaffed adults next to a section featuring mid-60s teenagers for not-so-subtle comparison. Warhol put these youngsters, with girls in their safe white collars and boys in loudly plaid sports coats, into the photobooth. The results show girls as repressed clowns, furtively looking to the side but generally afraid to be seen (not unlike Warhol himself, photographed in a tuxedo and looking like a nervous waiter), and boys as confident and hammy, filling the small squares with their gestures. Warhol then took seven image strips, laid them out in a grid of teenagers, and gave each vertical stripe a different bold color for Time magazine’s cover story “Today’s Teenagers” (January 29, 1965). He had already subjected adults, like abstract painter Larry Poons, to the same treatment for a Harper’s Bazaar piece titled “New Faces, New Forces, New Names in the Arts” (June 1963). Using the childlike photobooth on adults first, the results of that experiment are also on view.
In this exhibition, the paintings illustrate the end, and photography the means. It was a local silk screener that taught Warhol the inexpensive technique for mass-producing images, making all of the artist’s photographs potentially useful artistic material. Photographic portraits are screened, delightfully off-center, over the top of brightly-colored monochrome canvases, their black paint “smearing” with all the spontaneity of a Japanese brush and ink painting. You are allowed to compare the original photographs to a handful of painted versions, and realize a distinct artistry inherent in each phase of the process.
Warhol first began experimenting with photography in the late 1950s with a Polaroid camera, and if you are “of a certain age,” so they say, that makes for some powerful nostalgia. Rather than needing a dark room, the exhibition didactics beautifully explain that there was a tiny darkroom of chemicals in each self-printing Polaroid photograph. A grid of celebrity portraits, faded with time and forever framed by that little quarter-inch strip of white, covers a gallery wall. The artist used a bulky Polaroid Big Shot (1971) to capture his sitters for future paintings, making the preliminary stage something of an Old Master’s quick “drawing” study and should be viewed as such.
The Massillon Museum has cunningly paired Snap! with Art Out Loud! Psychedelic Posters of the 1960s, on view in the basement gallery, and has its engaging local history exhibits upstairs, including their beloved miniature Immel Circus. Altogether, what might be wrongfully mistaken for a dry and dusty historical center is actually a pleasure palace from top to bottom this summer. With its small town twee and big city antics just twenty minutes from Akron, it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a summer “must.”
121 Lincoln Way East
Massillon, Ohio 44646
Admission is free.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.