Monday, March 20, 2017

Talkin' Warhol With Tweed Docent Bill Shipley

Friday morning I took advantage of an invitation to visit with Bill Shipley, Tweed Museum docent who spent much of his adult life in New York art scene, ultimately returning to Duluth in 2004 after the passing of his partner Leslie Bohnenkamp.  Last weekend Mr. Shipley gave a gallery talk on Andy Warhol and the current Pop Art show now on display there, an event I was sorry to have missed. "I consider last week's lecture the best I ever did."

Mr. Shipley spent two months preparing, extracting stories from a range of sources including Death and Disaster: The Rise of the Warhol Empire and the Race for Andy's Millions. I'll share his "big three" insights in a minute.

The reason I'd come to visit was actually to see some of the art I'd heard he's collected over the years. Naturally one is first struck by the tidiness of his Park Point residence, something akin to a art gallery space. Next one immediately observes these sculptures by Bohnenkamp that look a bit like a cross between a cone and the horn of a longhorn steer. There are several of these and each gives the appearance of being substantial as if formed in bronze. Instead they are quite lightweight, hollow and made of paper.
Two Shipley paintings flanked by Bohnenkamp sculptures.
In addition to giving tours of the Tweed, Bill Shipley is himself a painter. Like many artists he go through seasons where a single theme maintains primacy over his subject matter. At this time he has been painting Mondrian's Amarylis flowers. Whereas most people are only familiar with Mondrian's colorful abstract squares, such as Broadway Boogie Woogie, that it may come as a surprise how fixated Mondrian on flowers.

When people speak of modern art they frequently have images like Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending A Staircase, and some of Picasso's later works. Perhaps Jackson Pollock comes to mind, and are thus confronted with the question of what really qualifies as art.

The irony is that just as the modernists proclaimed their freedom from rules that bind you as regards what is acceptable as art, the fine art power brokers made sure that their own rules got enforced. The purists considered what many craftspeople were doing to be craft and not art. The role Leslie Bohnenkamp played was to bridge the gulf between fiber arts and fine art. His sculptures are made of coiled, woven and spiraled fiber. When you look at photos of the 2004 Bohnenkamp show, you immediately notice the endless variety of shapes and forms.

After a brief tour we settled down to talk a bit about Warhol. I asked what the Big 3 takeaways were from his presentation. He identified the following.

Shipley's flowers.
1. My biggest discovery: how Warhol based almost all he did on photography.
Shipley noted an experience Warhol had with Richard Avedon, the celebrated fashion designer. He had been making a living as a commercial artist, but when he switched into "fine arts" he became a Brand.

2. The idea of portraiture.
Art historians can point to an abundance of portraits of the rich and famous through the centuries. In the 20th century this tradition seemed to have fallen out of favor. That is, until Andy Warhol brought value back to portraiture. Warhol did 50-100 portraits a year and was paid $25K apiece for them. The waiting list was long, but those with the cash recognized an investment that would produce returns...

3. Warhol's enduring influence.
Andy Warhol is considered by many to have been the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century. His importance can be measured by the market value of his works. His witty pronouncement about 15 minutes of fame is so ubiquitous it has become cliche.

Bill told me an anecdote about Andy Warhol's visit to the Tweed in 1970. He was doing a campus tour, giving lectures and keeping his celebrity status alive. (His films were doing the same thing, being shown on campuses around the country. I remember going to see a portion of his eight-hour film of the Empire State Building.) As it turns out,  people learned later that Warhol had sent an impersonator to do the campus tour lectures.

Much more was shared about his life, his near death experience when he was shot, and the 100,000 photos he left behind when he did finally pass.

Since I'd also come to see the art, here are a couple more photos I snapped.

Eric Dubnicka piece was Best in Show at DAI five years back. 
* * * *
Tuesday 4:00-6:00 p.m. is the opening reception for Nevada Littlewolf's Senior Art Exhibition at the Tweed Museum of Art on the campus of UMD. The title of the show is, THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE. It promises to be most insightful.
Thursday 5:30 p.m. gallery talk at the DAI Morrison Gallery, 4th floor of the Depot. Ms. Kuth will talk about her show Rooted Expression.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

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