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Reviews

Andy Warhol

Rachel Giles

The portfolios
Dulwich Gallery
Until 16 September

Asked why the walls of his studio and celebrity hangout the Factory were covered in silver foil, Andy Warhol replied: 'Silver was the future, it was spacey - the astronauts … and silver was also the past - the Silver Screen - Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets. And maybe more than anything else, silver was narcissism … mirrors were backed with silver.'

There was plenty of glitter and vanity in Warhol's life, along with an obsession with fame and a lust for money that ate him hollow. 25 years after his death, he still hovers over our visual culture like a ghost; he won't go away. So here's another exhibition of his work at Dulwich, timed to draw the crowds during the Olympics, and no doubt it will. Is there anything new to discover about Warhol's art or life?

Dulwich's bijou exhibition space - just three rooms - would certainly focus a curator's mind. We're used to big brash Warhol shows in huge white spaces, but here less is definitely more. This is a jewel of an exhibition, something surprising and precious. Warhol the trickster and celeb-chaser is still present, but another side of him is allowed to emerge: it's clear he was, more than anything, a genius with colour.

The first room (walls painted silver like the Factory) starts with famous examples of earlier work - Campbells soup cans, and the 1970s Flowers series. Two things about Flowers hit you: their scale, and their sheer joyful luminosity, both heightened in this small space. There's a lurid out-of-register Marilyn portrait from 1967 with the famous closed-tooth smile - surely one of the 20th century's most recognisable images, evoking death, desire, and vulnerability. But this is a lesser-seen variant; the star's face is khaki, her bouffed hair is bronze, and she's backlit with a deep glowing scarlet.

Further on, we've got some surprising still lifes that are a bit more high art than low culture: Grapes DD is reminiscent of the vanitas paintings you'll find in the gallery next door, showing a similar preoccupation with fleshy rounded form, and deep shadows in the curves of the fruit. The DD stands for the diamond dust (actually ground glass), which adds a sparkling bloom to the grapes' skin. The compositions are enhanced by what Warhol called 'arty rectangles', flat blocks of vivid colour like those used by Matisse or Léger.

More fruit follows, with some gorgeous prints of cantaloupes, peaches, and pears from the portfolio Space Fruit: Still lifes. Pink and lime green, violet and blue, purple, orange, and yellow; their 3D form is flattened and simplified to near abstraction. These are mouth-watering experiments with colour.

Warhol's other obsession, apart from the depiction of everyday objects - was creating an iconography for the idols of US culture. In his Myths series, shown in the final room, he screenprinted ten portraits of fictional characters, including Uncle Sam, Mickey Mouse, and Superman, sprinkled with diamond dust for added glamour. But there are also sinister faces; you wouldn't let your children go near Warhol's Santa Claus; Howdy Doody, a character from a kids' TV show, looks just like the horror film doll Chucky; and Dracula and Mammy loom out at you from black backgrounds. Mammy's red lipstick is the colour of blood and forms a nasty glutinous drip between upper and lower lip. Fear and death often lurk beneath the camp exterior of Warhol's work.

A portfolio of myths wouldn't be complete without a self-portrait of Warhol himself, and here he casts himself as The Shadow, a character from a US radio show. In featureless profile, swathed in diamond dust, he twinkles like a true star himself, no longer a real person but canonised in a work of art. Warhol created the series in 1981; he would be dead six years later.

Tragically, Warhol chose to worship fame and fortune, constructing his own persona, rather than living as regular human being: 'Andy Warhol/Silver Screen, can't tell them apart at all,' sang Bowie. He's often portrayed as a kind of freak, but actually, we're not so unlike him; we too find glitter alluring. But immortalised on the walls of this august gallery, he continues to sparkle under our gaze.

Rachel Giles