We’re all familiar with Andy Warhol. His Campbell’s soup can paintings are the hay wains of Pop Art. But does he still deserve our attention? Isn’t it time to wash him out and toss him into the pedal bin of art history? This exhibition, which coinides with the 80th anniversary of the artist’s birth, shows that his work should continue, rightly, to fascinate us.
The exhibition’s subtitle, Other Voices, Other Rooms, is a clever one. This was the title of Truman Capote’s debut novel, published in 1948, and it captured the imagination of the young, gifted commercial artist Andy Warhola – born in Pittsburgh in 1928 to immigrant parents form a village in what is not the Slovak Republic - who had grown up in the Depression-hit town. Suffering from involuntary spasms as a child, he learned to draw whilst recuperating. At the same time, he was fascinated by Hollywood: this was its golden age, and was an avid collector of movie-star pictures. After majoring in pictorial design at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, he moved to New York City in 1949. Starting as a window-dresser, Warhol – he soon dropped the final ‘a’ of his name – quickly became a prolific book illustrator and commerical artist for magazines like Glamour, Seventeen, and Vogue.
In 1952 he held his first exhibition, giving it the self-explanatory title, Andy Warhol: Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote. Capote had shot to prominence with his first novel, and Warhol doubtless sensed a kindred spirit, not only as regards sexuality, which the book’s famous dust-jacket photo of Capote lying in a sultry pose on a counch with one hand on his crotch did nothing to hide – but also in the field of social climbing, at which the tyro novelist was proving himself to be exceptionally adept. Five years later, Warhol’s work was so successful that he established Andy Warhol Enterprises Inc.
But Warhol was not a mere social climber: his work was revelatory about the worlds of celebrity and those living on the sexual margins. It was also prodigious: we are overwhelmed with it here, for he not only painted but was also a photographer, film maker and television producer too. Warhol was a lifelong collector, both in his home and in his famous time capsules; boxes in which he would periodically seal up anything he felt to be of interest from his daily life and business. This exhibition is a treasure chest – Andy’s Chest, as it were – of his life’s work to be examined. What gets us thinking here?
We’re instantly confronted by the Marilyns, the paintings where the star’s smile seems to disolve into a contemptuous sneer at everything life has thrown at her, and Campbell’s labels. These pictures are keys to Warhol’s success. ‘Pop Art’ may have been loaded with varying degrees of pretentious theory by academics, but at heart, it’s straightforward representational art that gives people something they undrestand: and that is what they want to see. But Warhol wasn’t simply an advertising artist who struck lucky because of Pop Art – his gold leaf on paper drawing ‘Unknown Male’ (1957) is a study in sensitivity showing a young man with a military haricut under which lurk sensitive eyes and an upwardly expectant glance.
After the paintings, Warhol’s films are up for examination. He was unable to interest Hollywood in his film projects, so established his own production system and made them himself. If you like a mixed bag of films that range from the tedium of ‘Empire’ (1964) showing the Emprire State Building over several hours, or the claustrophobic rows of ‘Chelsea Girls’ (1966) then these are for you. It’s difficult not to feel Warhol exploited then currently fashionable European realism in films in order to either grab critical attentions (as with the former) or so imply a certain brittle lifestyle (as with the latter). The presence of German singer Nico in ‘Chelsea Girls’ is a reminder of Warhol’s influence in rock music and his role in the career of the Velvet Underground, an outfit which would have seminal influence on glam rock and punk a decade later. The exhibition is enlivened by a thumping soundtrack of relevant pop goodies such as the Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’ and Blondie’s ‘Union City Blues’. (In his Diaries - a copy of this monumental tome is in the exhibition – Warhol said of Blondie’s singer Debbie Harry, that ‘Debbie actually was the first Madonna’). Glam rockers, punks, new romantics and today’s more extreme street fashion club kids can all be said to be Warhol’s children.
Warhol’s films received varying degrees of critical acclaim and provided employemnet for the hangers on who frequented his studio, known as the Factory. The name was not a patronising nod to proletarian sweat – hard work was carried on there, and it also acted as a sort of job centre for hustlers, transvestites, and others who – in theose pre-Stonewall, pre career-queer days – might have percieved some difficulty in gaining legtimate employment. One of those hangers on was Valerie Solanas, founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), a radical feminist group and author of the SCUM Manifesto, a separatist attack on patriarchy. In 1968, feeling exploited by Warhol, she shot him. We see an anger-filled letter from her, addressed to Warhol, where she refers to him as ‘Toad’. We also see fellow photographer Richard Avedon’s photograph ‘Andy Warhol Artists’ (1969), a close up of Warhol’s post-shooting, scar-slashed chest. The scars this event would leave on Warhol were emotional as well as physical including – crucially, as it would turn out – a lifelong fear of hospitals.
Among Warhol’s photographs, it’s the polaroids that are the most eye catching. In 1977 we see a playful Mick Jagger biting the ear (or is he tonguing it?) of fellow stone Charlie Watts, whose face is either contorting in pain or, maybe, writhing in social discomfort. In 1976 a reflective Jimmy Carter contrasts with an imperious Joan Collins of nine years later. Polaroids of Warhol himself in drag give him a remarkable resemblance to Nancy Reagan, which is ironic given he was a lifelong Democrat.
Television was another medium with which Warhol busies himself. His Andy Warhol’s TV ran from 1980 for two years and featured celebrities being interviewed. We see extracts from shows including people such as actress Brooke Shields, socialite CZ Guest, and fashion designer Halston. They look rather stilted, but they’re a reminder of the days when celebretory status depended on either possessing a certain inherited social standing or having achieved it via hard work in the creative/media world. Warhol may have prophesied that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, but the hard-working boy from Pittsburgh certainly wasn’t the high priest or the airhead ‘sleb’ (slob?) of celebrity culture today. Unlike some modern celebrities, or rather, people who find themselves in the public eye, he didn’t see victim status from his sufferings, although his hard upbringing and his shooting gave him plenty of scope for his. His unexpected death in 1987 following a gall bladder operation – which, arguably, might have been avoided had he sought medical attention earlier – spared him witnessing the current media exaltation of non-entities.
The motivation for Warhol’s work continues to be a mystery. Was he a success-hungry kid who wanted to show the dark underbelly of American life by warping its glamour? Or was he simply in love with American life in all its gaudiness and wanted to celebrate it? Then again, maybe his Catholic upbringing – he remainted a faithful churchgoer until his death – provides a clue to what made him tick. Rather than seeing art as a substitute for religion, he may have seen it as a transient toy and, like a sort of holy fool – a standard character from the Eastern Europe of his parents – was using his lack of seriousness to mock artistic pretentiousness. His very manner – at least in public – suggested a sort of dissonance with the world around him, as if his eyes were fixed on eternity. Part of him liked anonymity, and he probably enjoyed the confusion his work inspired. Warhol was famous for saying little about himself to the media: the exhibition features sound interviews with him, including Gretchen Berg’s 1966 one with Warhol yielding up short non-committal, montone explanations about his work, and a 1974 one where controversial Nazi-era film director Leni Riefenstahl gently but firmly lectures him. The exhibition doesn’t solve the puzzle of Warhol, but it does give us an array of clear and often colourful raw materials from which we can try and draw our own conclusions. For which we can only say, oh, gee, thanks Andy.
Ends 18 January 2008