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Q&A with René Paul Barilleaux, curator of the McNay Art Museum's "Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune"
"My personal interest in Andy Warhol’s art goes back to the mid-1970s, so I was keen to develop a project which both surveyed Warhol’s career and presented a new and unique point of view," said René Paul Barilleaux. Photo: Courtesy The San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, TX.- Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune brings McNay visitors a comprehensive view of the work of one of America’s most celebrated artists. This exhibition –exclusive to the McNay– is drawn from the rich collections of the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune assembles over 150 objects in all media and is organized by the McNay’s Chief Curator and Curator of Art after 1945, René Paul Barilleaux. ArtDaily caught up with the René Paul Barilleaux and asked him some questions.

When and how did the idea to organize and original Andy Warhol exhibition originate?

Because of Andy Warhol’s significance as one of the most important artists of the last century—and possibly the most important artist of the late 20th century—the McNay has had a longtime interest in presenting a major exhibition of his work to our audience and in this region of Texas. The McNay owns a drawing and suite of prints by Warhol, and the museum has presented his work previously in the exhibitions The Great American Pop Store: Multiples of the Sixties (1999) and Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth, Basquiat (2007). However, no exhibition focused solely on Warhol’s art had been seen in the San Antonio area.

My personal interest in Andy Warhol’s art goes back to the mid-1970s, so I was keen to develop a project which both surveyed Warhol’s career and presented a new and unique point of view. Beginning around 2008 we began to consider exhibitions circulated by the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh. After looking closely as a number of projects, we proposed to the Warhol Museum the idea of creating an exhibition from their collection and specifically for the McNay. Close examination of works in the Warhol Museum’s collection—in monographs, exhibition catalogues, online, and the like—the concept of “fame and misfortune” surfaced. In a sense, the concept was revealed through the art itself, through the particular holdings of the Warhol Museum, the vast majority of which came from the artist’s estate. Clearly, Warhol himself felt close to this concept in that it was through his collection of his own work that our exhibition concept evolved.

Who were the people involved in the decision and what was the process in getting everything together?

As the exhibition’s curator, I proposed the theme to the McNay’s director Bill Chiego, who enthusiastically supported the idea. Bill and I met with then Warhol museum director Tom Sokolowski and his staff, in particular director of exhibitions Jesse Kowalski. Both responded favorably to the concept and agreed to work directly with the McNay to organized an exhibition from the Warhol Museum’s vast holdings. In addition to creating a survey centered on a original idea, I had a particular interest in evoking the artist’s presence in the exhibition as much as possible. To that end, the installation includes photographs of Warhol by other artists as well as source images for important iconic works. The installation is organized in a chronological progression, with quotes from Warhol introducing thematic sections. To enhance the visitors appreciation of Warhol’s significance while at the same time his elusive nature, the quotes are presented at a height above the average person’s head, and in yellow lettering on an off-white wall, forcing the viewer to look up and creating an optical experience with the graphic design.

The exhibition checklist initially proposed include well over 200 works in all media. After some months of back and forth review of this list, a final checklist of just over 150 works was agreed upon. Certain objects were already committed to other projects, or had conservation issues prohibiting travel, or the like. However, examples in all formats—paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs, prints, and film—are included in the final presentation.

Why did you choose to focus on fame and misfortune?

It was important from the outset that the McNay’s show focus on an aspect of Andy Warhol’s prolific output that had not been fully explored in an exhibition format. Other projects addressed similar themes or perhaps focus on this concept within a limited range of the artist’s career. I wanted to demonstrate that celebrity and tragedy permeate Andy Warhol’s entire body of work, from his early soup can paintings to his interpretations of The Last Supper made in the years just before his death. Additionally, it was important to show that fame and misfortune are evident in all manner of Warhol’s art, not just his Marilyn and car crash paintings but in his drawings of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson made before either had met their tragic ends.

Were there any budget limitations?

The McNay was prepared to meet the budget obligations necessary to create an exhibition, accompanying catalogue, complementary programming, and full-scale marketing campaign necessary to appropriately present a significant survey of Warhol’s work, and the museum’s 2008 addition—the Stieren Center for Exhibitions—offered the ideal gallery environment in which to do it.

Did you travel to Pittsburgh to select the works of art?

McNay director Bill Chiego and I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in fall of 2010 to present the proposed exhibition concept and broadly discuss what might be possible, and in addition to look at work in the collection. I made a subsequent visit in 2011 and selected works through a combination of viewing work in person, reviewing the Museum’s extensive digital inventory, and later reviewing images in books and catalogues and online. Additionally, because I had been looking at Warhol’s work for about 35 years, I already had a deep knowledge on which to draw.

How does a curator prepare to take on the task of assembling an exhibition like this one? Did you read books or watch films?

Well before I began the process of organizing this exhibition I had looked at a lot of Andy Warhol’s work in person as well as in reproduction. For me, in general, it is important that the art reveal an exhibition’s concept, rather than the other way around. By that I mean I hope that by really looking at the images, and in this case in looking at a specific body of images, something begins to surface in the art, some underlying element or elements that tie disparate images together. Conversely, I know that some curators begin with a theme or idea, and develop a project around it. Perhaps because my training was in making art as a studio art major, rather than studying art in the way art historians do, this approach evolved—an approach that is processed based.

For a long time I had looked at books and catalogues on Warhol’s work, going back to high school. Additionally, I had seen numerous exhibitions, either solo presentations or other exhibitions including Warhol’s art. Plus I had seen some of his films and other related films. This research figured into my curatorial process, but I have to reiterate that it was thinking about the work itself that really spoke to me.

As far as the layout of the exhibition, what did you take into consideration?

Since I was presenting a career survey and a thematic exhibition simultaneously, I began by organizing the work chronologically. We start our design process on a scale model, and it was evident from the model that due to the way Warhol worked, generally in series, sub-themes or sections were evident--for example, death and mortality, as presented by Warhol’s skull imagery in the 1970s. In addition, as with each exhibition layout, there are aesthetic, visual, and practical considerations: what is in the visitor’s view down or across a gallery wall, how much space is around a sculpture, how works are “phrased” on a wall to include pauses, or visual punctuation. I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to project examples of Warhol’s films in the gallery, so that they were not segregated from his other work but viewed within the broader context of his art production. Placement of the three films I selected was strategic in terms of the overall feel of the installation, and in the end offer an additional window into the mind of the artist.

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