There's more to Andy Warhol than soup, cereal and celebrities, but the average art enthusiast would be hard-pressed to find it.

A new exhibit on display through Jan. 3 at the Milwaukee Art Museum is the first in the United States to introduce the public to Warhol's later years.

"Andy Warhol: The Last Decade" focuses on the most prolific but least known period in Warhol's life, from 1978 to his death in 1987. Many of the nearly 50 works are on display in the United States for the first time, some not seen since they were shown in Paris 30 years ago. After Milwaukee, the exhibit goes on tour to Fort Worth, Brooklyn and Baltimore starting in January.

It only took six to eight years to cement Warhol's pop identity in the '60s, guest curator Joe Ketner said during a recent tour of the exhibit. Ketner, a chair in contemporary art at Emerson College in Boston, coordinated "The Last Decade" with Milwaukee Art Museum assistant John McKinnon to showcase the lesser-known work Warhol created later in life.

The pop artist's screen-printed Marilyns and Campbell's soup cans now are iconic to the point that they've become cultural shorthand for a whole era of ideas and attitudes. Since the early to late '60s, some of his most famous works have cycled through the public consciousness enough that they've deviously assumed the blandness of airport lounge fare, so familiar that we hardly take notice.

"The Last Decade" is fresh. The works are presented chronologically, beginning with self-portraits and ending with his imposing "Last Supper" series. Warhol's vulnerability - tempered with a loose confidence -- increasingly shines through as you walk deeper in. From 1978 on, his art suggests a man in the midst of a rigorous examination of life.

Warhol began a transformation around 1978, Ketner said. The year marked his 50th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his attempted murder at the hands of radical feminist Valerie Solanas. He became more reflective and morbid and started keeping a diary.

The doorstopper compilation of these diaries from his last nine years ("the ultimate bathroom book" said one museum staff member) is the subject of one of three book salons the museum is hosting this fall.

After spending the early part of the decade focusing on film, he returned to painting in the late '70s. Warhol always had been a feverish and obsessive workaholic, Ketner said, but he turned up the fire in this last decade and created more than in any other period in his life.

The irony? "No one knew what he was doing," Ketner said.

He started experimenting with ways to "paint without painting," like letting urine and metallic paints oxidize on canvas, unfolding giant Rorschach prints or silk-screening yarn in a Jackson Pollock pattern. He practiced his quick and facile touch for painting by hand, often collaborating on the same canvas with friends and fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente.

In his final years, Warhol's Catholic faith emerges in his work, culminating in a trio of studies on Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The last is a hand-painted outline of the table scene with giant commercial symbols superimposed above the heads of Christ and his disciples: General Electric, Dove soap and a 59-cent price tag.

Was he perverting his own religion or lamenting its commercialization? Was General Electric meant to represent the light of God and the Dove logo the Holy Spirit?

Ketner waffles a bit at the questions. Ultimately, we'll never know for sure, and that's the beauty of Warhol.

"Everybody can slice and dice Andy Warhol up and they won't be wrong," he said.

IF YOU GO

What: "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade"

Where: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays. Shows until Jan. 3.

Info: 414-224-3200 mam.org

Also: 30-minute exhibit tours: noon Thursdays

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