MANCHESTER, N.H. - Andy Warhol's pictures - not unlike his statements - reproduce the effect of air escaping from a punctured balloon. They look bright, sunny, effervescent. But the fun leeches out of them the longer you look, and they take on a frozen, haunted aspect. The upshot is the same whether the subject is an electric chair or a New York socialite, a race riot or a Republican politician. It can make for a depressing viewing experience, but it is the true source of Warhol's profundity as a late 20th-century artist.
The Currier Museum of Art's decision to mount an exhibition devoted to Andy Warhol and politics during this extraordinary political season may look opportunistic, even cynical, to some. I think it's pure genius.
People rightly think of Warhol as Machiavellian, but they don't consider his political instincts to have extended much beyond the spheres of society and business. Did he actually have ideological convictions? And if so, what were they?
Warhol answered the question himself in 1968. "Well, the reason I don't sort of get involved in [politics] is because I sort of believe in everything," he said. "One day I really believe in this, and the next day I believe in doing that."
The second statement rings true. But Warhol was fudging when he said he did not get involved in politics, and this exhibition - the first anywhere devoted to the subject - proves it.
It opens with images of Jackie Kennedy, continues with a wonderful series inspired by the first Kennedy assassination called the "Flash - November 22, 1963" portfolio, and moves on to portraits of Bobby Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Edward Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Mao, Lenin, Queen Elizabeth II, the queen of Swaziland, and sundry other political figures.
If it seems strange that a show like this hasn't been attempted before, I have a theory: No one has been game to tackle it. The subject is too potentially awkward. The art world, after all, is traditionally liberal. Warhol, the New York art world's favorite son - its "recording angel" - may have started out backing Democrats, but he ended his life hobnobbing with the shah and empress of Iran and toadying up to the Reagans.
Liberals who cleave to the idea that Warhol was an important artist don't like to be reminded of his political agnosticism. "I know I should be for the Republicans, because I hate paying taxes," he once said, but "artists just can't be Republican, can they?" They cling instead to Warhol's images of the Kennedys, whom he depicted repeatedly, and Mao.
It's too bad, because Warhol was an important artist, and he was important in ways that tend to be devastating for people with political convictions of any kind.
The poet John Giorno says he was with Warhol when they both heard that President Kennedy was shot. He claims that they started hugging each other and crying. "We wept big, fat tears," he wrote. "It was the symbol of the catastrophe of our lives."
Warhol would have been horrified to hear this. He later claimed that although he was thrilled to have a handsome young man like Kennedy as president, it didn't bother him that he was dead. "What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad," he said.
Five years after JFK's assassination, he made the "Flash" portfolio. This work, comprising 11 color screenprints, recently came into the Currier's collection, prompting the idea for the current show (which has been thoroughly researched and superbly assembled by Sharon Matt Atkins). The screenprints employ images culled from various sources - a Kennedy campaign poster, a presidential seal, an advertisement for the alleged murder weapon, and so on. Although he never followed through on it, Warhol intended to present the series as an artist's book, the images alternating with pages of text selected from contemporary Teletype reports recounting the events from the assassination to the funeral.
The format suggests the conventions of photo-reportage. But what makes the imagery provocative as well as poignant is that it is difficult to decipher - sometimes because it has lost its clarity in reproduction, sometimes because it has been yanked out of context, and sometimes because Warhol has all but drowned it in black, white, or saturated color.
So just as Warhol takes us up close to this momentous event, he obscures it. The resulting confusion seems definingly modern. In fact, it made me think of the scene at the start of Stendhal's novel, "The Charterhouse of Parma," in which the young hero finds himself caught up in the Battle of Waterloo, but is never allowed to take part in, or even observe, the main action - much less to comprehend its significance.
Warhol's life dovetailed with political events most dramatically in 1968. On June 3 of that year, he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Two days later, while Warhol was still recovering in the hospital, Bobby Kennedy, who had just defeated Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic primary, was assassinated. According to Warhol, it was television, perceived through the fog of recently anesthetized consciousness, that brought him the news.
Warhol later got involved in various political campaigns, though never out of any sense of inner conviction. More often, it was because he was commissioned, or because he aspired to be a true court portraitist. The presentation of power was what interested him; he didn't much care about the political stripes of the courts he served. The one image that looks like an exception - a fund-raising poster that shows Nixon in clashing colors and a rictus grin, with the words "VOTE MCGOVERN" scrawled beneath - he later disavowed: "The idea was that you could vote either way," he quipped.
Warhol, we must never forget, began his career in advertising. Just as the renewed vigor of postwar commerce had dramatically closed the gap between products and advertising, Warhol dared to make the production of art inseparable from its marketing.
He was quick to realize that politicians had long ago adopted the same approach, and that the formula was guaranteed to produce disappointment, boredom, fatigue, in everyone concerned. These were the states of mind that fascinated him, and to which he seemed to become addicted.
Warhol was always finding ways to deflate the aura of inviolability around high art. "Every time I go out and someone is being elected president or mayor or something," he once said, "they stick their images all over the world, and I always think I do those. . . . I always think it's my work."
Most artists would rather die than think of their images in such terms. But Warhol was fascinated with replication, mass production, and the strange fizz of desire produced by attractive packaging. He knew the fizz went flat. And that is what makes his work not only poignant, but salutary, as we enter the final stages of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Whoever wins is bound to disappoint. How could it be otherwise?
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.