“Andy Warhol’s Children’s Show”

Newport Art Museum

The world is full of small, perfect strokes, and this exhibition must count as one of them. The playgrounds of rich children have long been Andy Warhol’s preferred haunts, and rich children his favorite companions: so out of the clubs and into the nursery comes Andy, with his perfect-little-camper backpack, and Cornelia, his willing debutante pal.

“Andy Warhol’s Children’s Show” opened on a rainy Sunday in fashionable Newport, and, with the concurrent events taking place outside under a tent, it made an ideal rainy-day activity Damp moms and slickered tots trafficked the bright, high-ceilinged museum gallery (providing an aleatory chorale with the refrain “Don’t touch"), while dads stayed outside with older kids, frequenting the refreshments stand and the clown-makeup concession and coaching players at the spin-art booth, principally with the cheer “C’mon, use s’more paint!”

Inside with the three-year-olds and their mothers, we were treated to an exactly reduced and clarified world view We were winked at by Jonathan Swift and Sigmund Freud. The “Children’s Show”—small acrylic-and-silkscreen canvases, each of which had as its subject a mechanical-toy box—was in effect surrounded by the past elders of Newport, whose portraits occupied most of the other galleries. And so in this and all other respects the exhibition was an escape zone, a playroom for the sophisticated child. The gallery walls were papered with an elegant, oversized shades-of-gray fish pattern designed by Warhol and inspired, it seemed, by Japanese kite designs—just the sort of child’s-room motif that won’t be outgrown. (Warhol, who last did cow wallpaper in 1971, may also be reflecting the changing diet of jogging-class Americans, to whom “Where’s the beef” is currently a slogan that begs the response, “Let them eat fish!”)

The paintings, dating from 1982 and 1983, were hung low and idiosyncratically in variously sized clusters determined by toy type. There were large groups of “Clockwork Panda Drummers” and “Mechanical Terriers” (“not recommended for children under 3 years of age”), for instance, and smaller ones of Hungarian “Roli Zoli” clowns-on-scooters and “Moon Explorers” Many of the toys represented were American or from East European countries, which provided the unexpected occasion to suggest that while American children remain obsessed by “stupid” pet tricks, military hardware, and futuristic knickknacks, the Slavic and Magyar peoples of the world have somehow managed to sustain their longstanding and deep affinity for the circus.

The range of colors in these works amounted to a virtuoso display of how lavishly versatile, how suggestive, Warhol’s now-standard formalities can be. Ranging from the sharp-focus style of his “Liza Minellis” to off-register distortions that go beyond the “Electric Chairs" into the Brothers Grimm, the color chart provided by these canvases implied everything from baby gurgles to goblin smirks, with camp clinches filling in the mid range. A straightforward green-and-yellow “Panda Drummer” is one thing, but a pink-and-black one gone fuzzy is quite another; and if you can’t describe the color, you’ve met your match.

The “Children’s Show” was organized and installed by peripatetic impresario Diego Cortez, who, since his “New Wave” show of a few years back, has been working on a very effective showcasing technique based equally, it seems, on reflexive improvisation and “signature“ idiosyncrasy The exhibition was accompanied by Andy Warhol’s Children’s Book (1983), published by the Bruno Bischofberger gallery, in Zurich. It is bright, stiff, chunky, reassuring. In this new age of “baby love,” Andy W. may prove to be our A. A. Milne.

Lisa Liebmann