Warhol for Kids: A Pop View of Toys

Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit shows artist's feel for surfaces, wrapping and packaging.

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On the walls in the beautiful exhibition curated by Sara Raiman Shor, “Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings,” one can see 86 happy, colorful works of art produced with a technique combining painting and silkscreen printing. In this exhibition, which opened over the weekend, the artworks are tiny-scale creations from the Mugrabi collection. They are from the “Paintings for Children” series that Warhol produced 30 years ago. As legend has it, a Swiss art patron, Bruno Bischofberger, asked Warhol to prepare artworks for children. Warhol, who had amassed a private collection of toys and children’s books, took up the challenge.

In the early 1980s, Warhol, who was born in 1928, was a highly influential cultural icon and was regarded as one of the originators (and appropriators) of pop art in America. But was it reasonable to assume that he would step into his famous studio, The Factory, to prepare paintings of toys?

One of the most intriguing aspects of this Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibition touches on the critical angle required in light of the rubric “Paintings for Children” that Warhol himself assigned these creations. The dozens of prints he prepared – the fish, the monkey, the robot assembly kit, the “Motorcycle with Sidecar,” the bear beating a drum and, of course, the “aeroplane” assembly kit – all reflect, first and foremost, Warhol’s unflagging interest in consumer culture and in the foibles and desires of human society.

It is certainly not a matter of coincidence that most of the works in this series depict packages of toys rather than toys themselves. For example, when one looks at the picture of the puppy, one discovers the caption “Mechanical Terrier” and the warning: “Not recommended for children under 3 years [of] age.” At the bottom of the painting of the robot, one reads “Made in Japan,” while other packages bear Cyrillic and Chinese lettering, because Russia and China were the countries that produced the toys which Warhol amassed for his private collection. While Warhol’s decision to depict packages of toys served his interest in retail wrapping as a symbol of the importance of surfaces and packaging, often at the expense of the contents, his choice also made it easier for him to transfer to the two-dimensional language of art prints the flat images appearing on packages, rather than the three-dimensional toys themselves.

The walls of the exhibition hall on the lower level of the museum’s main building have been painted in bright, impressive hues and the works have been hung in groups by topic. The result is highly aesthetic. Nonetheless, it is very possible that the nine interactive stations set up throughout the hall, such as the professional print shop, will prove more attractive to younger visitors to the exhibition, while the painting-silkscreens will remain primarily a conceptual framework.

One of the most interesting and original stations is the image supermarket. Barcodes have been assigned to the series of objects that Warhol has made use of. A barcode reader – such as the one used at a supermarket checkout counter – enables visitors to scan the object they have chosen, and to see on a computer monitor a picture of the object and a brief explanation of its Warholian context. For instance, the scan of the image of a banana will lead to the album cover Warhol designed for the Velvet Underground rock group. The image supermarket introduces visitors to the place of such objects as high-heeled shoes, apples and Kellogg’s Cornflakes boxes in Warhol’s creative work and even gives a sly wink to the postmodern “supermarket” of ideas.

The exhibition is accompanied by brief texts on Warhol in line with the idea that hands-on (sometimes even intuitive) experiences are a more appropriate way of becoming familiar with this artist and his oeuvre. This is certainly a legitimate decision, because it expresses the desire to find ways to interest children and teenagers in different art forms; however, the decision causes the spotlight to shine primarily on Warhol’s artistic techniques rather than on the subjects with which he was concerned.

Visitors to “Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings” are invited to stamp images of Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon on flat surfaces; to pile printed images one on top of the other on transparent pages in a process akin to the technique of creating art prints; and to learn more about the images and objects that interested Warhol. A special section in the exhibition focuses on real toys.

Alongside the exhibition there is a silkscreen print workshop on the subject of toys. The workshop’s walls have been painted silver, to recreate the look of Warhol’s famous New York studio. The activities, geared for children aged 8 to 12, center on the various stages in silkscreen printing and introduce participants to the chief characteristics of the art prints created by Warhol. Although an admission fee is charged for participation in the workshop, there is no entry fee to the museum and the exhibition for children and youth 18 and younger. (To participate in the workshop, one must reserve places in advance.)

Until the end of this year, one can enjoy the excellent opportunity of supplementing a visit to “Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings” with a visit to another exhibition at the museum that also includes works by the artist. The exhibition, titled “Wanted” and curated by Suzanne Landau, the museum’s director and chief curator, is also based on works from the Mugrabi collection. Although it focuses on five artists – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Adam McEwen, Richard Prince, Tom Wesselmann and Warhol, the lion’s share of “Wanted” consists of some of the most celebrated and most important of Warhol’s works.

One can find in this exhibition striking examples of his inclination to duplicate – for instance, in such works as “Twenty Marilyns” (1962) and “The Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)” (1986). The highly expressive self-portraits provide, albeit misleadingly and craftily, an opportunity for visitors to see an image of the artist responsible for dozens of paintings of toy packages. As one descends from the upper level where “Wanted” is exhibited, to the basement where the “Toy Paintings” exhibition is located (Warhol perhaps might have considered the physical location of the two exhibits additional proof of the tension between “high” and “low” in art), one can appreciate the challenge that Raimon Shor has taken upon herself in curating an art exhibition catering to children and teenagers. The constant challenge of making art accessible to the public at large, and especially to its younger members, is augmented in Warhol’s case by his deep concern with issues related largely to the “adult world.” To discuss the attraction to the world of advertising and celebrities, the addiction to shopping and the enchantment of the modern world’s abundance, there is a need for a certain degree of social and cultural introspection. As some of the adults who will visit the “Toy Paintings” exhibition with their children or grandchildren will probably attest, many of today’s children and youth seem to have been born with the propensity for such introspection.

It is certainly no coincidence that most of the works depict packages for toys rather than toys themselves.

'Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings,' an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
'Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings,' an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
'Andy Warhol: Toy Paintings,' an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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