It's easy and not inaccurate to say — as many have — that Andy Warhol was a mirror. But even today, a generation after his death, the tinted, magnified, multiplied reality of his art looks like nothing in nature, nothing we could hold up to a looking glass. It resembles only itself — you know a Warhol when you see one — and therefore suffers under the label that so much of it courts: iconic.
Knowing Warhol, though — that's something else. Despite his career-long campaign to defuse any impression of his own depth, a full-time occupation that he undertook with considerable wit and cunning, the man continues to provoke copious scholarship. Was he a futurist whose repetition and replication commented on automation and a coming world of clones and drones? Was he an apolitical moralist, a refugee from commercial art whose "Atomic Bomb" (1963-64) is less a window onto holocaust than a rumination on totalitarian suicide? The Pop Art glow of his images still sets off Geiger counters.
Warhol was — and remains — not a mirror but a screen, and the seeming simplicity of his work encourages endless projection (We are all celebrities) and endless pronouncement (This isn't art).
The canniest thing about Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life & Legends, Union Station's eager-to-please, sometimes beguiling survey of mostly late-career screenprints, is its sequencing. First comes a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe, then a fallout shelter's supply of Campbell's soup cans (from his 1968 revisit to the subject), and then a corner. Turn the corner, and the less familiar images nudge almost imperceptibly toward thematic unity. The Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century portfolio leads to the Endangered Species screenprints, steps away from Flowers. In an alcove past these waits the lighthearted, diamond-dust-sprinkled (that is, glass-particle-enhanced) Ten Myths portfolio, populated by Mickey Mouse (Warhol often answered predictable "who's your favorite artist?" questions by naming Walt Disney), Superman and Santa Claus, among others. Myths includes the show's most hypnotic image, a deeply erotic bordello-red vision of Greta Garbo in character as Mata Hari. Though the portrait extends no farther down than Garbo's neck, it transmits an adult sensuality far removed from anything else here (or in much of Warhol's work, period).
Under Warhol's Day-Glo sun, Garbo, Franz Kafka and the San Francisco silverspot are all superstars. The butterfly stands in for Warhol as surely as his Myths self-portrait (in which he depicts himself as the Shadow of old-time radio). After all, what are the silverspot or the African elephant or the Siberian tiger but the most thrilling celebrities of the animal kingdom? And death hunts animal and artist alike. Warhol decorates his George Gershwin with vibrating squiggles of color from the crown of the composer's head to the edge of the frame, as though attuned to the brain tumor that killed him.
The plain thread of mortality seems almost accidental, given that what these pieces most have in common is their ownership by Bank of America, this traveling show's curator and underwriter. The idea of the juggernaut art exhibit sets teeth on edge — too many pieces! boo, corporations! — but if any artist would appreciate chilly institutional backing, it would be Warhol. That's the monolithic company's message, anyway, in giving the last word to Warhol's short series of Keith Haring prints devoted to "Andy Mouse," a money-mad, art-making rodent. Fewer such reminders of the artist's salesmanship and more of the intriguing, tumult-centered pieces of his early period would have deepened Portfolios' perspective. The only such image here, the 1964 screenprint "Birmingham Race Riot," on a wall by itself in the show's front room, is an exhibit unto itself.
"I like to be the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space," Warhol says in John Yau's In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol. "I've made a career out of being the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space. That's the one thing I really do know about."
He could have given a few lessons to Union Station. As it does with nearly everything it touches, the troubled, tourist-hungry facility is promoting Portfolios as a family event. In an anteroom at the end of the gallery — near a perfunctory reading table whose three books (two slim all-purpose overviews and Warhol's not-family-friendly Diaries) seem to have been gathered off a secondhand cart — is a small space where children can sit and make art. The refrigerator drawings tacked to the foil-wrapped cork boards of the "Art-tivities Factory" tell a small, sad story about a place so desperate for traffic and participation that parents instinctively know to let their kids leave the day's mementos behind. It's hard to figure whether the mass-market Andy Warhol who dominates Portfolios would have approved. But the down-market Pittsburgh native who loved the spectacle of failure just under the glaze of fame — he would have felt right at home here.