“I’m still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist,” was Andy Warhol’s reply to “What about your transformation from commercial artist to real artist,” a question posed by Paul Taylor in his last known interview for Flash Art magazine.
Such are the snide implications often heaped upon those who dare earn money in art, critiques that so-called “real artists” – normally meant to imply the less successful commercially – are generally spared, while those with “real jobs” – businessman, doctor, dentist, lawyer, bricklayer – are seldom, if ever, asked to defend their success.
But for Warhol, who was said to be fearless in his art and have an apparent fondness for funds, it would undoubtedly be a welcome surprise to see “Andy Warhol: Revisited” in Toronto, liven up one of capitalism’s most commercial avenues: Bloor Street in Toronto.
The exhibition is the work of Toronto native and Los Angeles entrepreneur Ron Rivlin, who felt a Toronto Warhol exhibit was not only overdue, but would add to Canadian understanding and appreciation of an artist to whom he now devotes significant resources. Thus, 100-plus original Warhol works from Rivlin’s California-based Revolver Gallery, which is dedicated exclusively to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, are opening eyes on Bloor.
Given that Warhol had a penchant for creating images in multiples, i.e., the Double Elvis, Triple Elvis, Four Marlons, it is by design that three hand-sculpted figures of the artist himself, created by sculptor Jack Dowd, keep watch over the Bloor Street comings and goings.
“He would create an image, and then do it in different colors,” Rivlin told me over the phone from his California office. “So I bought three of them.”
And if some of Warhol’s work strikes you as over the top, you might feel that so is the display of approximately 1,400 Campbell’s Soup Cans that greet you stepping into this makeshift gallery. Well, why not? While it’s hard to imagine one never coming across one of Warhol’s most famous pieces, the Campbell’s cans are a striking reminder of how successful he was in transforming the common, ordinary objects we frequently give little thought to. He allowed us to see them anew. And it’s for a good cause; the soup will be donated to a food bank at the exhibit’s conclusion.
Up above and to the counter’s right looms a reproduction of a Double Elvis, done by Louis Waldon, a Warhol Superstar, who acted in Warhol’s movies, and worked with him at the Factory, his New York artists’ enclave. In black and white, it’s as though the King were looking out for the cash, greeting visitors brandishing a revolver pointed to the exhibition, an image likely culled from the 1960 film “Flash Star.”
My eye takes me to a Jane Fonda depiction, used to support a campaign for Tom Hayden, her former husband. It’s from 1986, signed by Fonda herself, alongside the inscription – “Peace.”
Our eyes next move to the Reigning Queens, the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix, England’s Queen Elizabeth II, and Swaziland’s Queen Ntombi. While they ascended to their thrones, rather than be elected, I agree with our guide Katharine’s assessment that Beatrix and Elizabeth are depicted as “reigning women in their own light, without their husbands.” However, Queen Ntombi’s representation presents a stark contrast to the generally Caucasian, often Anglo-Saxon idea conjured in the mind at mention of the word queen.
“Every color you see in a screen-print is a different layer of paint,” Katharine says, while my eyes move to three Marilyns. I opt to sit on a silver couch before them, taking in every different layer. And if I wasn’t observing these pieces in strict order of their creation, I was at least doing so as they came at my eye, avoiding the tendency to jump from an anonymous image here, to a more well-known one over there.
We come to some Campbell’s Soup Cans. There’s Old Fashioned Vegetable, reputed to be a Warhol favorite. Cheddar Cheese’s label says “Great as a Sauce, Too!” And Hot Dog Bean is proclaimed to be “A Stout-Hearted Soup.”
We move into a section on the glamorous side. There’s a print of Judy Garland in her role as a spokeswoman for the BlackGlama fur company, a portrait of cross-dressers from the Gilded Grape, a New York club, and Warhol’s take on Chanel No. 5.
While fame and celebrity were often hallmarks of Warhol’s art, Energy Power, a stark black-and-white silkscreen on canvas showing a hand holding a nuclear power symbol, shows us he was not strictly one-dimensional.