Point and Counterpoint with Andy Warhol

If one image persists from “Possession Obsession: Objects from Andy Warhol’s Personal Collection,” it may be of endless cookie jars. Anchoring one wall of the exhibit, which first opened at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the cookie jars are reminiscent of Warhol’s silk screens of Marilyn Monroe. Those Technicolor faces appear repetitive and undifferentiated, but begging for closer inspection, each is remarkable and unique.

On view at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum until October 13, “Possession Obsession” accomplishes the tremendous task of reuniting several hundred objects sold at the 1988 Sotheby’s auction after Warhol’s death. The show is more than a harvest of merchandise, however. It reconnects Andy Warhol, proto-Post Modernist master of image, to the material world. And by the looks of it, Warhol’s artwork listened to the dialogue.

Warhol began collecting in earnest in the 1950s, and, as the exhibition is categorized, he demonstrated a cunning passion for collectibles, 19th century American furniture and art, Art Deco furniture, decorative arts and jewelry, and Native American art and artifacts. Even as he climbed the social ladder, always-frugal Warhol pursued collecting trends before they hit the mainstream—the show reads something like a lesson in “If I had only thought to invest in something other than eight-track tapes.”

More significantly, “Possession Obsession” is an introduction to the narratives and provocations of Warhol’s artwork. This perspective has been sorely neglected by art historical scholarship, and yet Warhol’s marriage of high- and lowbrow culture, for example, is perfectly reflected in his bringing together American neoclassical furniture with Fiestaware.

In addition to unveiling the history of art or of the American polity, the exhibit also pokes at Warhol’s life: his pack rat mentality could have signaled, say, a Depression-era upbringing or closeted sexuality. An interest in the geometric designs for Navajo rugs informs his opinion of Modernism.

Whatever the interpretation, “Possession Obsession” makes it clear that the artist lived in the world, not in a vacuum. For Andy Warhol, the worlds of material culture and design—from early-American crafts to Art Deco fashion, Native American ritual objects, and mass-produced kitsch—was inextricably linked to the way he expressed his understanding of the contemporary world.

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