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Tate Modern, London

Brooke Neely


'More than any other artist of his generation, Warhol showed us that the ubiquitous imagery of mass culture had come to reflect and shape contemporary life.'
Donna De Salvo, Senior Curator, Tate Modern

Prior to my visit to the Tate, Andy Warhol existed in my mind as a 20th century American cultural icon, the guy with the crazy blond hair and the artist who created the Campbell soup prints. Although his name was always familiar, I knew little of his life or the context for his work. Walking through the 21 showrooms of this exhibit, I viewed the origins and evolution of Warhol's innovative art and gained a comprehensive picture of the man behind the silkscreen.

The exhibit begins with a selection of Warhol's flower paintings from 1964. It then goes back to the beginning of his work, with his early paintings and sketches of popular culture, and proceeds sequentially throughout his career, showing the link between his life experience and his artistic transitions. Using objects and people consistently portrayed in the mass media, Warhol weaves a theme of media influence and mass culture into his pieces. Evolving from bright portraits of Marilyn Monroe to stark scenes of the electric chair, these well-known images make Warhol's work immediately accessible and meaningful even to people outside the art world.

After viewing the familiar prints of dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans, I moved on to the room titled 'Stars'. 16 Jackies, a mixture of Jacqueline Kennedy headshots before and after JFK's assassination, stands out and gives human complexity and emotional depth, in my opinion, unseen in his earlier work with inanimate objects. By unveiling the vulnerability of a national celebrity under the media's scrutiny, Warhol evokes sympathy and awareness.

At this point, the exhibit drew me in; perhaps, similar to the way Warhol tempted his followers in the 1960s to hang around his studio waiting for his next insightful creation.
As I left the first half of the exhibit and wandered through the café area, I felt compelled to scribble down the Warhol quotes painted on the walls.

'I never read. I just look at pictures,' he declared in 1968.

'When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums,' he said in 1985.

Warhol had the power not only to generate provocative art, but also to develop an enticing ideological and cultural movement apart from his artistic creations.

By producing a comprehensive, in depth look at Warhol, including an informative program that ties his life to his work, the Tate Modern's exhibit keeps the viewer fixed on the artist and his intentions at all times; probably just as Warhol would have hoped. The inclusion of his many self-portraits, in which he assumes the position of popular icon, also heightens the viewer's connection to him. Whether you see these images as self-indulgent or self-explorative, or both, you will likely leave the exhibit with his portrait planted in your brain.

From his harsh depiction of the death penalty and violence in the United States to his fascination with popular cultural icons, Warhol's colourful commentary on the media influence and American society combines abrasive truth with casual wit. And his insight continues to entrance viewers and stir debate. For this reason especially, the Tate Modern exhibit succeeds.

Warhol runs at Tate Modern until 1 April 2002.


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