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Live Through This: The de Young's Warhol exhibit 

Wednesday, Feb 18 2009
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Music fans long ago lost patience with passively observing musicians. We want to download a song from one site, research band details from another, and get musicians' status updates through our social networking webs. Living through 21st-century pop culture means living within that pop culture — interacting with it by breaking it off in chunks and making it our own.

This incessant need to experience everything all at once has been embraced by the big art institutions in town of late. But due in part to the multimedia art star it celebrates, the most impressive music-related exhibit is "Warhol Live," on display now at the de Young.

Of course Andy Warhol was the original king of media saturation. He took influence from seemingly everything: Hollywood, the avant-garde, Brillo boxes. But his art has so thoroughly saturated malls and museums that it feels like there's little surface left to scratch. I mean, honestly, another Warhol exhibit?

The de Young offers one of the few fresh angles left — music — from which to view this ubiquitous legend. In my opinion, it was Warhol's connection to our recording icons that really makes him a fascinating subject. And the museum's approach connects well with our era, filling ears (and social calendars) in a multidimensional display.

Warhol's musical idolatry is showcased across countless silkscreens, from Elvis and Judy Garland to Grace Jones and Debbie Harry. But it's the entire rooms dedicated to his most iconic relationships — with the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones — that are most exciting, stimulating fans with less obvious sights and sounds. I could linger there for hours.

The Velvet Underground and the Stones left incredible iconography beyond their influential music — and Warhol was a big part of those impressions. "Warhol Live" offers two rooms of the Velvets. One displays beautiful black-and-white band photos, the musicians' video "screen tests," and posters for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events Warhol orchestrated. In the next room, you can lounge on brightly colored cushions to take in the EPI happenings: giant films of Nico and the band are projected on the walls, while the Velvets' music plays good and loud and the group's guitars and strobe light sit behind a glass case. It's a fully immersive experience you can't get anywhere else.

The Rolling Stones' music is also piped throughout the exhibit, as Warhol helped create their two unforgettable album covers, Sticky Fingers and Love You Live. You can peek at snapshots for those records in the Stones room, along with documents that make Warhol's relationship with Mick Jagger more personal. It's these smaller details that are most compelling, making you privy to something unique. The random party photos, a letter from the singer to the artist, and an illustration of Jagger show the nature of Warhol's lusty affection for his good friend.

While these rock 'n' roll giants are the superstars of "Warhol Live," the curators have added further depth to the show by dedicating wall and speaker space to other music he embraced: disco in the Studio 54 room, jazz in the album covers area, and video of his collaboration with experimental composer La Monte Young. Walking along, you'll also hear the opera and baroque music that inspired his art, introducing new muses into the old Warhol image you thought you knew.

"Warhol Live," which opened last weekend, includes another layer that also makes the exhibit pop, if you will: programming including screenings of Warhol-related movies, guest speakers, and the Friday night happy hour series with musical performances by New Yorker Lissy Trullie (Feb. 20) and Velvet Underground covers bands (April). The grand ball is the Pop Party this Saturday, Feb. 21, a big event with a big price tag that nonetheless promises to grab as much from the Warhol music arc as possible, including a Rolling Stones covers band.

As they're shown at this exhibit, Warhol's sonic infatuations are not only connected to one another, but they're also connecting to a modern era where we want to know our beloved pop stars from as many angles as possible.

If only I could take home Warhol's Stones poster (the one where they're licking one another in a giant Love You Live promo) as part of the show. I think that'd generate that interactive spirit, at least for one of my own personal rock 'n' roll obsessions.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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