QX Review by SW?
(reprinted from QX magazine, No. 368, February 13, 2002)
Perhaps you've been watching Andy Warhol - The Complete Picture on Channel 4. Maybe you've seen the billboards. It's possible you've listened to The Strokes and are unable to distinguish their sound, from that of The Velvet Underground. However vague your connection to Andy Warhol might be, you will have one. Unlike many 20th century artists, Warhol is identifiable, not only by his iconic images, but by his own image.
Warhol elevated Monroe to symbolic simplicity, and simultaneously secured his own immortality. Show someone a picture of Warhol in his fright wig, and they'll identify the artist instantly. Show 'em Warhol's infamous Shot Blue Marilyn from 1964, and not only will they know the subject, but who created it amd maybe even why. That's impressively famous, and well beyond the ubiquitous fifteen minutes. When Factory photographer, Nat Finkelstein was asked to name Andy's greatest work, he replied, 'Simple... Andy Warhol'.
The press view of Warhol at the Tate Modern proved to be quite a demented event. We had a vague fantasy of a quiet tour with the curator, Sarah Kent, Marianne Faithfull and perhaps a few ladies from Vogue. After suggesting in last week's QX that art is the new clubbing, or at least a viable alternative, we were confronted with club-like gripes at 11am in the Tate Gallery. Overcrowding. Cloak room dramas. Herd mentality. The only thing missing was drugs and banging music. The hype had worked it's incremental magic and the Tate was besieged by hundreds of journalists, critics, Germaine Greer, photographers and several film crews.
The curator, Donna De Salvo gave a guided tour to a twitching mass of deadline anxieties. The alternative to the Warhoholian media circus was to grab an Audioguide, narrated by Jerry Hall. Jagger's ex-squeeze proved perfect company, and she was Andy's friend for 20 years, apparently. It has to be said, Jerry's an inspired choice for the job. Walking round a Warhol retrospective with a timeless supermodel in your ear is Very Andy. The Texan beauty has been recorded by the Tate and reproduced for the public, so that everyone can do Andy with Jerry. A unique experience is turned into a mass production and everyone's a consumer. We can all date a supermodel, providing we've got £3.50 and proper ID.
The exhibition takes up the entire 4th floor of the Tate, infusing the Cafe Areas and greeting those at the North Entrance with his film, Sunset. The show is semi-chronological, starting with a bunch of his flower paintings from 1964. They seem simple and cheery at first, with their bold, flat colours and uncharacteristic nod to nature. Like all flowers removed from their habitat, the beauty is fleeting. Decay, mourning and loss come to the forefront of these pictures after the initial response. An innocent walk through the garden turns to a day-trip round the cemetery.
When Andy moved to New York in 1949, he found success as a commerical artist, window dresser and illustrator of books. In Room 2 are pieces from this lucrative period, including the 1960 Advertisement which makes a collage of commercial fragments. Before his work ever graced a gallery, these formed the backdrop for mannequins in a department store window. In keeping with Andy's ethos of art for the masses, these pieces were entirely democratic. The homeless could not only view Warhol's, but also bed down for the night and have it as Exterior Decor.
Room 5 features his 1964 film Empire. It's probably the most famous of his silent, fixed frame conceptual works. It was a radical idea at the time and as a concept it's truly genius. As a form of entertainment, it's woefully limited, even when very stoned - which we were. This room acts as a great chill-out area, as it's dark and less populated than other parts of the exhibition. We watched it for a good ten minutes and seriously contemplated our sensation oriented culture. Then we got bored and went in hunt of the Campbell's Soup Cans.
The soup cans caused much brouhaha when Andy unveiled them in '60s Los Angeles. It was a large two-fingered gesture to the dominant Abstract Expressionism. They said - paint the absure with imagination, not as it is. Andy said - paint the banal, and exactly as it is. It was a revolutionary approach to art, which infuriated the avant-garde establishment. As art, its not hugely satisfying to look at, but delivers a punch in the originality department. We wondered if Tracey Emin's punch had the power of Warhol's and if so, would she like to aim it a Ivan Massow?
As a monstrous Elvis Presley fan, a true thrill was felt in front of the the real Elvis I and II. So big. So cool. So colourful and so not on our living room wall, where it belongs. The Andy Irony is, that it wouldn't be hard to reproduce, because it's only a reproduction anyway. A couple of art students could rattle one together for a few quid, but would it be Warhol?
Andy probably enslaved an orgy of speed freaks to do the original anyway, so where does Andy begin and art stop? Right there, at the cash point machine, that's where it stops. The seemingly mechanical approach to art still produced unique dividends. An original Warhol necessitates a certain kind of bank account and not one we're familiar with. Apart from a trifling difference in age, a fake Warhol could only be distinguished from an original by its price tag. Perhaps that's what we pay for - a slice of history and art's personal participation at a party we weren't invited to. Which is fair enough, really.
Warhol's Disasters dominate Room 9 and show the darker side of death and celebrity. He used images taken from newspapers, some of which were deeemed to gruesome for the public. Tunafish Disaster from 1963 tells the story of housewives who died via poisoning from tainted tuna. It shows how harmless consumerism can lead to accidental death. Warhol explored the brief and tragic fame bestowed on people after violent and unexpected termination of life.
In his Most Wanted Men series, Warhol used FBI mug-shots. This was his controversial contribution when commissioned to produce work for New York's World Fair in 1964. They were promptly banned, so Andy painted over them with silver paint. Their absence became their presence. In From A to B and back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol he gives a radical view on prison reform - Beautiful jails for Beautiful People. Quite right too, don't you think?
While the Electric Chair pieces could be seen as Warhol's grimmest work, Wallpaper and Silver Clouds are his most fun. Walking into a room full of helium filled silver pillows never fails to raise a smile. Lurid bovine wallpaper is quite hilarious at first, but it's not a room you can spend much time in. It was at this point in the exhibition that we enjoyed a full-on Andy moment, sandwiched between two bizarre scenes.
A TV presenter was recording an intro for a programme, but every time she said her first line, a silver pillow bobbed in front of her face. Her repetition of the line, "Andy Warhol was an iconographic artist," sounded like a Factory mantra after the 20th attempt. While the presenter fought with silver pillows and the rigours of continuity, Amy Lame was doing a spot of PR for her Saturday nighter, Duckie. She was selling the club on its performance art tradition and rock & roll philosophy. The man she was talking to, looked like he'd experienced neither. Amy's American accent formed a bizarre aural jigsaw with the increasingly frustrated TV presenter. The juxtaposition of the two scenes didn't quite constitute 'art', but as a happening, it was very Andy.
It's a hugely enjoyable exhibition, with some unexpected surprises. His abstract Shadows made with disco dust are beautiful, and the collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat are a fascinating example of genius doubled, mixed and then distilled. The 30ft camouflage abstractions are so gay, they all but mince off the walls.
They're a glaring reminder of how Warhol has influenced fashion, as well as music, art and pop culture. It's an easy pleasure to spend an entire day, checking out the art, flicking through old copies of Interview magazine and reading reference books. The show's only on for 54 days, so get it together before it's gone.
Naturally, QX wanted to use an original Warhol image for the front cover, but this proved a stupidly difficult task. In order to use an image, it's necessary to contact the Design and Artist Copyrights Society who then send out a Request for License Form. This has to be completed, sent back to DACS, who then contact the owner of the art, and ask their permission for it to be reproduced. If you get this far, without dying of boredom or frustration, you are then charged the guts of £200 for use of the image. It seemed ironic beyond belief that an artist who believed in mass consumption, commercial overload and maximum exposure should wind up being subject to such draconian measures. We wanted to reproduce a copy of a reproduction for a free magazine but were expected to jump through hoops and pay for the pleasure. It proved cheaper and more imaginative to create our own Warhol tribute for the cover.
Andy would have appreciated it.
Death has changed the landscape of Warhol's work. It's more expensive post-mortem, and far less democratic, but it's eternally impossible to ignore.
Warhol at the Tate Modern runs from 7 February - 1 April, 2002. Admission - £10/£8 concs.