Transmitting Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol would have been 86 in August. His soup cans and dollar bills, Coke bottles and Brillo boxes are more than half a century old. An entire gen...
Andy Warhol would have been 86 in August. His soup cans and dollar bills, Coke bottles and Brillo boxes are more than half a century old. An entire generation has grown up with his Marilyns and Maos; primary school children know how to imitate his style and he is the most widely exhibited of all 20th-century artists. A new take on Warhol, therefore, ought to be a contradiction in terms.
But Tate Liverpool has come up with a show of real pep, pace and force that puts the emphasis on Warhol as the great art-for-all pioneer, bent on finding the broadest public reach for culture. The history may be familiar, from the Factory where anyone could make art, to the production of films, records, magazines, mass-market ads and TV programmes; but the focus is not upon fame and fortune, or Warhol as art history’s archetypal pop artist. One sees him instead as the coal miner’s son from Pittsburgh, moving with extraordinary prescience – and asperity – through the whole image-flow of American society.
The show opens with a Flowers work from 1964, based on a commercial photograph of a hibiscus multiplied by four and drenched with brilliant colour. Warhol stacked these prints so high and sold them so cheap that almost anyone could buy one – as he enthusiastically pointed out; of course the exact obverse now holds true. In those days he printed directly on to shopping bags, making art with utilitarian items, and he painted utilitarian items – airmail stamps, say – on linen so that they resembled fine art images.
Warhol loved the design of the Campbell’s soup cans everyone had in their cupboards, the serpentine flash of the dollar sign that appeared in every American town. He relished the red, white and blue of the ubiquitous Brillo box (itself designed by a painter) with its evocative address – Brooklyn NY – printed as if on a letter. The stack of boxes at Tate Liverpool takes the crisp beauty of the original cardboard cartons and turns it into something still and monumental. Apparently indistinguishable from the real boxes – art can no longer be judged solely in terms of visual criteria – they are commemorations of objects that anyone and everyone could own. That they are priceless today goes against the spirit in which they were made, and sold at five dollars a pop.
These boxes are screenprinted; others were painted. Warhol always worked both ways at once. Almost every image in this show came in two or more media – the guns, the cans, the Elvises, Maos and Jackies. Prints allowed him to pass the same image among a far larger number of people than he ever could with paintings, allowing a much more democratic distribution of art. How far this project succeeded is apparent from the fact that there are many more Warhols in our homes than in the world’s museums – Aretha, Sticky Fingers, The Velvet Underground & Nico, even Mozart’s Divertimenti; LP covers were his most self-seeding form of art.
Do It Yourself (Seascape), 1962. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expandDo It Yourself (Seascape), 1962. Photograph: 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, LondonYou could catch his work on television in the form of eccentric advertisements. Tate Liverpool is screening Warhol’s 1968 commercial for Schrafft’s cherry sundaes in which the ice cream quivers and shakes through a rainbow of colours from magenta to lemon, in tune with the test card behind it, and even performs in accordance to a soundtrack of words, music and coughing. A cross between Disney and performance art, between graphic design and anthropomorphic sculpture, it is the zaniest and most whimsical of all his time-based art.
Time becomes the crux of this show as you walk through galleries of mass-distribution images. Here is Nixon, sinister in black and green; here is Jackie Kennedy at the grassy knoll, and the camera flashing in the face of Lee Harvey Oswald at the moment of arrest. Here are the Birmingham race riots with the horrifyingly violent police dogs. Again and again, one sees Warhol’s unrivalled gift for hitting upon exactly the right image at exactly the right time in American life, for getting the defining moment across in pictures rather than words. Some of these prints were made from images skimmed from the papers on the very day of the event.
And as for news, so for people: time and again, Warhol finds a face to fit the era – Edie Sedgwick in the 60s, Debbie Harry in the 70s, the irreducibly strange features of Grace Jones in 1980, on the brink of global success. Their images are always characterised. In the covers from Interview magazine, the initial letter I becomes a subtle element, inflecting the portrait so that the sitter might appear to have horns or rabbit ears, to be wearing some kind of crown or medical device. The adjustments are minute, but the effects are striking.
That is a particular joy of this show, in fact: its close focus on graphic design, illustration, print-making and other mass-reproduction media allows one to see the fine distinctions between various versions of the same image. For the multiples that characterised Warhol’s art from beginning to end are almost invariably an exercise in compare and contrast. Here’s a handgun in moody grey, pushed safely back into the past; here it is again in ice white, its cold ferocity hitting into the present.
Elvis, literally printed on a silver screen, appears twice over and the size of life; but both stars are fading out and one is on the verge of total extinction. The electric chair, in misty blue, is a throne from some ancient culture or a hideous torture device in burning orange. It is the same object, the thing itself and yet somehow different each time – just like the Brillo boxes.
Warhol said everything he made was connected with death, but this show finds his humour too. The opening gallery – nothing less than a career condensed – is full of it, not least the wonderful sight gag of a vast painting-by-numbers picture. This is the very definition of art for all, a despised thing that anyone can make raised up into a seascape of grandeur and beauty, in which the numbers remain visible. The title repeats the point: Do It Yourself.