In early 1969, the RISD Museum hosted Look Back: An Exhibition of Cubist Paintings and Sculptures from the Menil Family Collection. On February 14, Houston art collectors Jean and Dominique de Menil were on hand for the exhibition’s closing reception. During their visit, director Daniel Robbins gave the de Menils a tour of Museum storage, where they were discouraged to discover many significant objects due to the fact that the Museum—as is the case with so many major museums—had limited gallery space for displaying its permanent collection.
The de Menils reasoned that because these objects were out of sight, they would not be missed if they were to travel as an exhibition to other museums. They envisioned a cooperative network of museums in similar situations, sharing exhibitions of notable objects from their collections that would otherwise go unseen in “cold storage.” Danny Robbins and the de Menils thought the idea would be even more interesting if important contemporary artists were invited to select works for these exhibitions, providing a fresh, less academic interpretation of the collections. Acting on the idea, the trio decided that the first of the exhibitions would be made up of works from the storerooms of the RISD Museum, and the artist curating the show would be Andy Warhol.
This landmark exhibition was not only noteworthy for Warhol’s idiosyncratic choice of objects—including shoes, parasols, chairs, hat boxes, Native American pottery and blankets, wallpaper, bundles of auction catalogs, even a ginkgo tree growing in the museum’s courtyard—but for the radical way he chose to display the works: along with their storage cabinets, racks, and shelves, as they were stacked and grouped in storage when he first saw them. Warhol and a small entourage made six trips to the Museum during the summer of 1969, going through storerooms with the curatorial staff, all the while tape-recording conversations, snapping Polaroid photographs of works, and, whenever objects struck his fancy, exclaiming, “I’ll take them.”
Ultimately, Raid the Icebox I with Andy Warhol was the only installment in what was planned as an ongoing series of exhibitions. Danny Robbins approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see if they would collaborate in a series of “Raids,” but tight exhibition schedules did not allow these museums to take the Warhol show on short notice. Other museums—“Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Whitney, Kansas City, St. Louis”—were also considered, but comparable and willing partners in extending the series were never found.
In October 1969, Raid the Icebox opened in Houston at Rice University’s Institute for the Arts, under the direction of Jean and Dominique de Menil. In January 1970, the show moved to the Isaac Delgado Museum in New Orleans. At the Delgado opening, visitors entered the museum through basement storage, with a hot-dog vendor from off the streets serving refreshments. The Delgado also added a functioning vintage jukebox to its installation and suspended a spinning, mirrored globe from the ceiling.
Raid the Icebox had its final showing at the RISD Museum from April 23 to June 30, 1970. For the opening, RISD chartered a bus to bring Warhol and select friends from New York. The museum arranged a press conference prior to the reception that proved to be a disaster, featuring only three reporters, one television crew, and an uncooperative Warhol who answered questions through surrogates. The reception included a student rock band, the Morning Star, who performed a song written for the occasion. The atmosphere was heightened by the intrusion of RISD student protestors, who chanted slogans and carried signs lobbying for an increase in minority financial aid.
Warhol’s curatorial choices make better sense in hindsight, especially when one considers the contents of his home and studio that were made known through auctions and exhibitions after his death. Artist-curated museum exhibitions are now commonplace, but Raid the Icebox was the exhibition that started it all and it is inarguably the RISD Museum’s best-known exhibition. It continues to interest artists and scholars throughout the world, and the RISD Archives receives numerous requests each year for installation photos and other documentation.
“At the opening, which was held in the basement [storerooms] of the Museum, Andy started throwing cookies at me, and Anne Fordyce came over to my table and told me that Andy threw cookies at people he liked. I said, ‘Keep them flying!’”
–Malcolm Grear, RISD Graphic Design professor (emeritus) and the designer of the exhibition catalog
“I must say all of us were a little startled [by] the nature of works that Andy chose! Of almost 300 objects that are included in Raid the Icebox there are perhaps 25 that any curator, in his right mind, would agree were first-class.”
–Daniel Robbins, quoted from a letter to Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf
“Painting storage vault has been improved through the ingenuity of Messrs. Ryan and Dobson who fitted six screens that had been employed in Raid the Icebox with Andy Warhol to mounts in the vault thereby lifting some 60 paintings off the floor. Hundreds more, however, are housed in a deplorable way.”
–Museum Committee Semi Annual Report, April–August, 1970
Andy Warhol had made a previous trip to Providence and RISD in the spring of 1967, promoting his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show and the Velvet Underground. Reviews in the RISD student newspaper BLOCKPRINT were not so favorable: “It was a poor band, a few lights, a few straight people, a few bombed people, a spectacular name, an exorbitant price, and a rather boring evening to say the least.”