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'Letters to Andy Warhol': Celebrity drives art exhibition, but in the end, is it a clunker?

“Letters to Andy Warhol,” a traveling exhibition touching down in West Hollywood for just 10 days, could have been curated by an algorithm. It features only 10 works but is packed with crowd-pleasing features. Large, shiny object in the window? Check. Photo booth where your selfie comes out like a Warhol silkscreen? Check. Virtual reality environment in which you paint the universe with rainbows? Check.

I think Warhol would have been pleased.

The show, a collaboration between the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the car maker Cadillac, sets its sights on the meandering line between art and commerce that Warhol navigated so deftly. But where he was nimble, the exhibition is clunky, shoehorning the interests of its corporate sponsor into an exhibition ostensibly designed to give us a more intimate view of the artist.

The exhibition centers on letters written to Warhol, including a decorous one from New York’s Museum of Modern Art rejecting the artist’s donation of a drawing, and one from Mick Jagger about the design of the album cover for “Sticky Fingers.” Another is from Truman Capote’s agent asking Warhol not to write so much. These missives humanize the icon.

Four of the letters inspired new works by writer Derek Blasberg, filmmaker Chiara Clemente, musician Sean Lennon, and fashion designer Brian Atwood with writer J.J. Martin. Choosing contributors from fields outside of art is a fine idea (go algorithm!), but the results are underwhelming.

The Brian Atwood and J.J. Martin project for "Letters to Andy Warhol."
The Brian Atwood and J.J. Martin project for "Letters to Andy Warhol." (Billy Farrell / BFA.com)

Inspired by that MOMA rejection letter, Atwood and Martin’s contribution is an enormous children’s book exploring gender identity and bullying. At more than 8 feet tall, it feels unnecessarily bombastic.

Polaroids by Derek Blasberg.
Polaroids by Derek Blasberg. ( Billy Farrell / BFA.com)

Blasberg’s piece is an homage to Warhol’s Polaroid portraits, but where Warhol’s subjects were motley in every way, Blasberg’s are dully uniform: thin, pretty people, mostly female, white and young.

Sienna Miller appears in Chiara Clemente's video, photographed here during the preview party last week.
Sienna Miller appears in Chiara Clemente's video, photographed here during the preview party last week. ( Billy Farrell / BFA.com)

Clemente’s video is a montage of interviews with a scattershot group of celebrities, including her father, Francesco Clemente, and Nick Rhodes, Zac Posen and Sienna Miller. They talk about early days. Paired with a note from Capote’s agent, it is the most competent work in the show, exploring the pivot between fandom and stardom that Warhol occupied so well.

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Lennon contributed a song, which you listen to through headphones while wearing a virtual reality headset and navigating a trippy virtual environment. I was trying so hard to figure out how to navigate that it was nearly impossible to really hear the song. When asked who designed the environment, the gallery attendant replied, “Google.”

I think that would have tickled Warhol. For him, it made sense for art and commerce to hold hands. What doesn’t make sense is the big shiny car in the window of the 101/Exhibit space, and the six Warhol works, all depicting Cadillacs. They don’t have anything to do with the letters or the themes of inspiration and influence. Rather, they speak of the bullying influence of money. The show takes the work out of context and makes it a car commercial. Worse, it assumes we won’t notice or care. Warhol might have been OK with that, but I’m not. Are you?

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“Letters to Andy Warhol”

Where: 101/Exhibit, 668 N. La Peer Drive, West Hollywood

When: Through Jan. 22; closed Sundays and Mondays

Information: (310) 659-9668, www.101exhibit.com

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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