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Philadelphia artist draws comparisons to pop-art icon Warhol

Saturday, January 10, 2004

By Bill Toland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The photo on the Post-Gazette's front page captured Gov. Ed Rendell sitting at a table in his Philadelphia office signing the state's belated budget package. The e-mails started coming the next day: Who, the writers wanted to know, was responsible for the brilliant American flag painting suspended over Rendell's shoulder and reflected in the shiny tabletop?

Jacqueline Larma, Associated Press
This photograph from late December, taken as Gov. Ed Rendell signed Pennsylvania's 2003-2004 State Budget stirred up some non-budgetary questions about the identity of the artist who created the striking depiction of the American flag behind the governor.

Mystery solved: His name is John Stango, a 45-year-old Philadelphia pop artist who sometimes draws praise as the next Andy Warhol.

Granted, the title is applied pretty liberally. Florida's Joseph Lawrence Vasile and Tokyo's Takashi Murakami can claim it, too. That's fine with Stango, who says he has a slightly different title in mind.

"I'm the white trash Andy Warhol," he said in between some really serious swear words. "Or maybe the Bart Simpson of pop art."

Whatever tag he chooses, Stango grew up worshipping Warhol, the Pittsburgh-born pop-art pioneer who found fame and modest fortune when he moved to New York, then started using paints and silk-screens to create busy, bright images of film celebrities, soup cans and, periodically, Chinese dictators.

So far, Stango hasn't found inspiration in Mao Zedong, but he paints lots of celebrities -- from Bob Dylan to Axel Rose, Ava Gardner to Albert Einstein, Gretzky to Ali -- and he's done the soup can thing as well. One of his earlier portraits, a sort of homage to Warhol's influence, is a painting of a single can of Campbell's tomato soup. Like Warhol's, nearly all of Stango's work is derived from photographic images.

In Stango's online gallery at www.stango.com, you'll also find an entire section dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, one of Warhol's favorite subjects. Some of Stango's paintings bear a striking resemblance to Warhol's, including one that divides the canvas into quarters, with one Monroe mug shot in each corner.

Beyond subject matter, their careers have few similarities. Warhol was an art phenom from the start, gaining acclaim as a student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, then in New York as a commercial artist when he won awards from the Art Director's Club and the American Institute of Graphics.

"I'm the white trash Andy Warhol," says Philadelphia artist John Stangos. "Or maybe the Bart Simpson of pop art."
Click photo for larger image.

Stango, on the other hand, wasn't taken seriously as an artist until the mid-1990s. After graduating from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, he worked in clothing stores and as a disc jockey, and in 1985 began making T-shirts that were sold in the same department stores where he'd once worked. (Warhol, incidentally, designed window displays for New York department stores for a spell.)

In the early 1990s, Stango started painting full time. A few years later, folks started to take notice.

The two artists crossed paths once, in 1980, when Warhol was in Philadelphia to sign copies of his Interview magazine at a city bookstore. A young Stango went to meet him. "I said, 'I like your magazine.' He said, 'Oh, that's really nice,' " Stango said during a recent phone interview. "He's very boring."

Stango has never been to Pittsburgh to visit The Andy Warhol Museum or the burial plot of his artistic hero, but he's been commissioned to paint a few other Pittsburgh icons -- a print of Penguins owner and center Mario Lemieux, and a portrait of Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

Most of Stango's work is special order -- folks call his newly opened studio in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, ask for a painting of a certain subject, and if the muse moves him, he usually finishes the job in a single sitting.

"If it takes me longer than one or two days, it becomes boring," he said. "It becomes a job."

As for that American flag painting, it was given to Rendell as a gift some years back, and from Rendell, Stango got a handshake and a thank-you. It's one of Stango's larger paintings, 48 by 68 inches, but there are several smaller versions floating around -- one was given to GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush four years ago when the Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia.

Another was given to former Pennsylvania Gov. and current Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

"It could be in his garage by now," Stango said. "But he definitely has one."

Today, the self-described "semi-famous" Stango still lives in downtown Philadelphia. His art, it turns out, is far more traveled than he is, represented in galleries from Japan to Sweden. Celebrities such as ex-ballplayer Cal Ripken and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi are among Stango's collectors, and he's sold 5,000 original paintings since 1996.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.

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