Monday, 11 August 2008

Pop Goes the Easel | Andy Warhol

Pop Goes the Easel
by Marina Saint Martin
Source: Gold Coast - Australia

Date: 10Nov07

Only a handful of 20th-century artists -- Pablo Picasso is an obvious one -- have managed to change the direction of art and the way in which art is viewed, as Andy Warhol has done.

Even fewer have had such impact on both the art world and the general public as Warhol. Perhaps the main reason for his enormous recognition and popularity was in his ability to create a bridge between cultures . . . in allowing the fine art world to converge with that of popular culture.

He became the ambassador, the spokesperson -- the icon, in fact -- for popular art culture. Mr Pop Art himself.

Australia's first major Andy Warhol retrospective will open at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, on December 8, bringing together more than 300 works of the one of the most influential of artists.

Warhol has remained relevant to both art and society, says Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood.

"We still see a lot of his influence today in terms of graphic design and in the merging of celebrity into fine art," he says.

Mr Ellwood says the exhibition was three years in planning and considered one of the 'largest and most significant' Warhol retrospectives ever held.

He calls it a coup for both Queensland and Australia, drawing national as well as international visitors.

The exhibition spans all his important stages from his first exhibited works in the early 1950s to his untimely death in 1987.

The Warhol retrospective, exclusive to Brisbane, will show paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, films and installations and has been organised by the Queensland Art Gallery and the Andy Warhol Museum, of Warhol's native Pittsburgh.

Works like his Marilyn Monroe portraits or his endlessly-reproduced Campbell's Soup Cans are instantly recognisable, even by those not seriously interested in art. Perhaps because they are not only art images per se, but definitive images of an era, stepping stones of a specific culture. Yet Andy Warhol's influence reached beyond fine art. Warhol, although world famous in his lifetime as a painter, was also recognised as a ground-breaking, avant-garde filmmaker, record producer and author.

He was somewhat of a media 'star', a public figure, a cultural spokesperson, an easily recognisable figure with his mop of platinum hair, his dapper clothing, his large spectacles. His fame and influence covered a wide social framework, with a presence in diverse social circles which included bohemians, street people, intellectuals, movie stars, celebrities, leading business people and aristocrats.

Always controversial (his work was sometimes dismissed by critics as being somewhat of a hoax, poking fun at art, rather than being art), Warhol survived then and survives now.

Curator of International Art at the GoMA, David Burnett says Warhol was and remains important because he merged high art culture with popular culture.

"He confused the demarcation lines, which is why he upset a few critics. But it was not an attack, rather a questioning of elitism in art and in life," he says.

"He had the intuition to see things for what they were, drawing attention to what was already obvious but unrecognised.

"Art was his life and his life was art."

In the 20 years since his death Warhol has been the subject of retrospectives, books, endless articles and documentary/feature films. The GoMA exhibition, however, is the first really serious retrospective to be shown in Australia.

Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1928, named Andrew Warhola, son of immigrant parents to the US from what was northeastern Slovakia.

He studied in Pittsburgh until 1949, when at 21 he graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), with a bachelor's degree in pictorial design.

He moved to New York and established himself as a commercial artist and designer, working for some of Manhattan's major fashion stores, labels and advertising agencies. He worked as an illustrator for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour and The NewYorker, creating advertisements and window displays for leading retail stores such as Bonwit Teller.

Prophetically, his first assignment was for Glamour magazine for an article entitled Success is a job in New York.

It certainly was so for the young Warhol, who had lopped off the final A in his surname early in his career and shortened his first name to Andy.

Although he won several commendations from the Art Director's Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, he began quite early to turn his attention -- seriously and successfully -- to fine art.

In 1952, Warhol had his first solo show, Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote, at the Hugo Gallery.

His work was exhibited in several other well-known venues, including a group show at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1956.

The '60s was a productive decade for him, beginning with a series of iconic pop paintings which used as inspiration a number of ordinary objects from daily life such as TVs, baths, soup cans, cars and Coca-Cola bottles.

Appropriating such images from popular culture, he created paintings that remain icons, such as the Campbell's Soup Cans, the 'Disaster' works and the 'Marilyns'. Today this does not seem so unusual or controversial, but at the time it was an unexpected use of subject material in the art world.

In 1962 the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, exhibited his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans 1961-62, instantly establishing his place in Pop Art. His fame and productivity accelerated from that time.

Some of the magic lay in his repetitive themes, echoing TV and print media, where images became banal by repetition. Warhol was the mirror for American commercial society, which worshipped all levels of fame from images of living persons to simply famous brands or logos.

The soup cans were a statement about the sameness of society -- same brand, same size, same paint surface, same fame, same ubiquity, seen in homes around the nation from the very poor to the super rich.

His work commented on the power of mass advertising, a world Warhol knew only too well.

He later continued this fame/same theme in star portraits (Liz Taylor, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando) -- all part of the 20th century's media-saturated culture.

Warhol himself had been part of that manufacture, but his work was neither an apology, nor a justification. It was rather an awakening, a comment on what was going on and involving people, even just passively as they stared out the bus windows or gazed at their TV screens' advertising imagery.

Warhol also began to make films and created many classics of avant-garde cinema over a five-year period from 1963 including Sleep (1963), Empire (1963), Kiss (1963-64), and The Chelsea Girls (1966).

Amazingly, he made about 600 films, ranging from almost 500 short screen tests (four-minute portrait films) to the 25-hour long film (Four Stars, in 1967-68).

These films were considered at the time, and indeed later, as some of the most radical experiments in filmmaking and continue to inspire today.

While hugely popular with the young, the sophisticated and the trendy, not everyone liked Andy Warhol. Some critics accused him of playing or toying with art, calling his work practical jokes and art hoaxes, something he didn't refute, quipping, 'art is what you can get away with'.

He faced some personal and artistic abuse, and in 1968 real physical trauma, when one Valerie Solanas, the founder and sole member of SCUM (Society for Cutting up Men) walked into his New York studio, known as The Factory, and shot him. Solanas had been a minor figure in The Factory scene, appearing in a Warhol film, I, a Man (1967).

It is believed that on the day of the shooting, Solanas had been there asking for a script she had given Warhol. This had apparently been misplaced. She returned later in the day with a gun.

Andy Warhol barely survived the attack. His chest had to be opened and his heart massaged. He was to suffer the physical effects of this assassination attempt for the rest of his life and was deeply emotionally affected by it. Some believe he never fully recovered, his most important working period ending with the attack.

Immediately the informal Factory environment -- which was both Warhol's atelier and his office -- became much more controlled and security conscious.

For many members of the magical Factory circle, it was the end of an era, the end of the mood with its bohemian, creative, artistically supportive atmosphere.

Despite this, Warhol continued on his personal creative path, pushing the boundaries of both technology and creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, he was a new eye in the world of art.

He looked at things in a different way, once commenting he saw art in everything.

"I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts," he once said.

Compared with the successes, excesses and scandals of the Swinging Sixties, Warhol's '70s were relatively peaceful.

Warhol 'grew up' during that decade and became more entrepreneurial.

He passed on ideas in the traditional style of the classic maestro with students and apprentices. He devoted more time to securing portrait commissions including Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, John Lennon, Diana Ross, Brigitte Bardot and Michael Jackson. His famous portrait of the Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong was done in 1973.

It was in the '70s that Warhol began publishing Interview magazine, a product of his fascination with fame, dedicated to the cult of celebrity with candid interviews with the famous and about-to-be famous.

"My idea of a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person," he said of Interview -- a fore-runner of the celebrity magazines which abound today.

He also renewed his focus on painting. Works created in this decade include Skull, Hammer and Sickle, Torso and Shadow.

Warhol also published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again).

Firmly established as a major 20th-century artist, an A-grade celebrity, a media 'star', he was invited everywhere and exhibited around the world, drawing huge crowds.

Warhol had a fascination with, and perhaps even a yearning for, the higher forms of tawdry Hollywood glamour and glitz.

He once said: "I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're so beautiful. Everything's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic."

As a child he had spent hours reading movie magazines about screen idols of his era. He had learnt the power of celebrity.

Although Warhol's work has been described by some as 'asexual', or as that of a 'voyeur', art scholars, art historians and biographers tend to disagree.

The interesting question is rather how much Warhol's sexuality influenced his work and shaped his relationship with his art and the art world. Warhol himself addressed this in interviews, as well as in conversation and in his publications.

Certainly, all through his career Warhol produced a series of erotic male nudes.

Some of his works drew upon the gay underground culture and a number of his films premiered in gay theatres. Among the first works that he submitted to a gallery were drawings of male nudes which were rejected as being too openly gay.

While his sexuality remained, on the whole, relatively private and somewhat ambiguous, Warhol's religious practices were even more so.

He was a practising Catholic and regularly volunteered to work in homeless shelters in New York.

Although he once said: "I am a deeply superficial person," he did, however, see himself as a religious one.

His later works contained semi-hidden religious themes or subjects, and a body of religious-themed work was found posthumously in his estate.

Warhol certainly regularly attended Mass, according to the priest at Warhol's local church, St Vincent's.

Eastern Christian iconography and images are also noticeable influences in his art.

John Warhola described his brother as 'really religious', adding the artist did not want people to know as he felt it was private.

Warhol began what was to be his last decade, the 1980s, with the publication POPism: The Warhol '60s and with exhibitions in 1982 of the Gun, Knives, Cross and Dollar Sign paintings in New York and Madrid. He also created two cable television shows, Andy Warhol's TV in 1982 and Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes for MTV in 1986.

His best-known paintings from the 1980s include the Self-Portraits, The Last Supper, Rorschach and Camouflage series.

At the height of his personal fame and at a newly-productive time in his career, Warhol somewhat hesitantly underwent what was described as 'routine gall bladder surgery'. He died of complications on February 22, 1987, aged 59.

Warhol may have had a premonition. He certainly delayed having his recurring gall bladder problems attended to, perhaps because of a reticence for hospitals and doctors following the 1968 shooting.

The international art world mourned the loss of one of its most recognisable and iconic figures.

After his burial in Pittsburgh, friends held a memorial mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York, attended by more than 2000 mourners.

In 1989, just two years after the artist's death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a major retrospective of his works.

The Andy Warhol Museum opened in his birthplace Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1994, and is a major source of material for the Australian event.

The GoMA exhibition will include many of Warhol's most important works presented in periods: the 1950s and his early works as an illustrator, the first forays into fine art, the early Pop/commodity works and box sculptures: the Death in America series 1963-68, considered seminal works of post-war US.

Later works will include his experiments with abstraction and, of course, his iconic portrait images of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, Mao Zedong and Elvis Presley, the reknowned Brillo, Heinz and Campbell's box sculptures.

But it will delve far more deeply into the artist's productive years.

On show for the first time in Australia will be Warhol's early commercial work and issues of Interview magazine. The exhibition will investigate how the artist represented himself through his art including his famous -- some say infamous -- self-promotion, Self-Portrait paintings, his own Time Capsules (boxed papers and objects of his life), books and diaries and even gossipy insights.

These are gleaned via loans from the National Gallery of Australia; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; the National Gallery of Victoria; and a number of private collections.

As part of the exhibition, the Australian Cinémathèque will present one of the largest and most complete surveys of Andy Warhol's film work, with a program of 53 films and 279 screen tests, many never before seen in Australia.

Children will not be left out of the Warhol exhibition diary.

The Silver Factory: Andy Warhol for Kids, will be a specially curated free program for the Children's Art Centre, from January 18 to 28.

During the opening weekend of December 8 to 9, a range of programs will be presented with symposia, special lectures, talks, panel discussions, films and performances.

From early January to the end of March, GoMA will be the place to be on Friday nights, when the Warhol exhibition will be open until 9pm (excluding Good Friday) for live entertainment, celebrity talks and films.

"GoMA, and indeed the whole precinct, looks magnificent lit up at night. Locals and visitors will love it," says Ellwood.

But, of course, the main focus will remain Warhol himself.

Few artists have changed the direction of art -- and indeed the way art is viewed by both the art world and the general public -- in the way in which Andy Warhol did.

He embraced the popular and turned it into fine art. He took an inter-disciplinary approach, unusual in his time, though currently very popular, he made an art from out of creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

Warhol moved effortlessly between the divisions of society, the divisions of culture and the divisions of the arts. We are perhaps just beginning to see the effect of his work on the art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the two decades which have followed his death.

What he began, what he experimented and toyed with, has become for many artists now the base and the norm. Some of the questions he asked are beginning, if not to be actually answered, then at least seriously considered.

Warhol even now remains part of our language.

"In the future," he said, "everybody in the world will be famous for 15 minutes."

This oft-repeated Warhol comment is now a cliché. Andy Warhol's own 15 minutes of fame have lasted 20 years beyond his lifespan, and are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

* Andy Warhol exhibition, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, December 8 to March 30.

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