One day when Jeremy Deller was 20, he heard that Andy Warhol was going to be at the opening of a show in London. I thought, “I’m going to go and get my picture taken with him.”It was 1986 and Deller was an art history graduate. Once he got to the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, he watched Warhol sitting at a big table signing stuff. Then he was approached by one of Warhol’s entourage who invited him to the artist’s hotel room. They said, ”Come to the Ritz tomorrow night, room 321.”
So the following night, he found himself with his mate Chris. “I thought I needed back up, I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for outside room 321.” Fighting back giggles, they knocked on the door and were let into a room in which Warhol and four or five other men were watching The Benny Hill Show with the sound turned down, while listening to Roxy Music’s greatest hits.
It was a pivotal moment in Deller’s life. “We just spent a couple of hours there, with him taking pictures of us. We had these hats and stuff in our bag and we started trying them on. It was innocent fun until he groped me. What? In the Ritz? I took it as a compliment. I was quite flattered. I know it’s not politically correct to say so.”
The meeting led to an invitation for Deller to visit Warhol that summer at the Factory in New York. “I went into it with my eyes open.” Did he grope you again? “No. There was never any repeat of what happened.” Instead, Deller spent two weeks watching how the Factory worked. I was just hanging out. He was very chatty. It was intelligence-gathering for him. He was always into networks, gossip. And then he would process it all into art. He was a very attractive character because he was doing more or less everything that seemed exciting then. He wasn’t just making art, but producing a rock band, doing TV shows. He made me want to become an artist because he opened up a world of possibility and freedom.”
What was the atmosphere at the Factory like? “It felt like there were things happening all the time, but it was a relaxed environment with a purposefulness nonetheless. You never knew who was going to walk in. He surrounded himself with people, people with different skills who had ambition and creativity.
Now, nearly three decades later, the 48-year-old Turner prize-winning artist is putting on a show juxtaposing the work of Warhol, his youthful hero, with his more mature passion, William Morris, an artist whose revolutionary force was obscured because Deller mistook him, as Britons will, for part of the furniture. “My parents had William Morris curtains, he recalls, so I was surrounded by his work and took it for granted, and only later learned about this complex person and his infinite career.”
But what’s the point of an art gallery mash-up of Morris and Warhol? Surely one was a communist looking nostalgically to medieval, pre-industrial crafts as inspiration for a model society, the other a superficial artist obsessed with celebrity and power? Deller argues both perspectives misrepresent his heroes, and that they have more in common that we might suspect.
Both established printmaking businesses, both envisaged art not as something done in lonely garrets but through collaboration. One critiqued the industrial culture of the 19th century; the other parodied the industrial culture of the 20th. Both wanted art to be for the people. Both, and this is where Deller is at his most challenging, were political artists. Come on, Warhol political? The electric chair? The pictures of race riots? There’s more to him than his trademark blankness.
Deller takes these politicized Warholian images as parallel to Morris’ political writings almost a century earlier. Morris wrote furiously about how the crafts skills in India and Malaya were ruined because the British empire wanted cheap mass-produced products. He totally understood the processes and how that affected art making. “William Morris was the precursor of modernism.” Really? ”He stood for things being beautiful and practical and well made. Bauhaus was a reaction against cheaply made goods. Morris got there long before them.”
He shows me a political pamphlet Morris wrote called A Factory as It Might Be. “Everyone thinks he’s a luddite. He wanted people to have gardens and grow their own vegetables. But Morris didn’t oppose machines: he thought they were good if they took away demeaning labour.” The factory that the English communist dreamed of was not, Deller argues, so very far away from the Factory that Andy Warhol ran in midtown Manhattan.
“Both were very much hoping that work might be idyllic,” says Deller. “Did Warhol really care about that?” The working environment he created at the Factory is a norm now for creative people. There’s a flow of people from whom you get ideas that feed into the art. I think that William Morris would be very happy that, in 2014, we live in Warhol’s world, that we don’t work in the kind of factories he hated. He describes Morris as the Warhol of his day, trying to revolutionize the alienating world of industrial work by the means of, incredibly, soft furnishings and floral wallpaper.
Deller’s long-held credo is: “Art isn’t about what you make but what you make happen.” Morris and Warhol, in contrast, both made stuff happen and made insane amounts of stuff. Riffling through the archives of these men to find material for this show has been, for Deller, laborious. “Both of them had an incredible work ethic, a huge physical legacy. They were never not working.” Deller’s legacy, by contrast, will be that of a catalyst. He was the artist who commissioned a banner to commemorate the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948; he was the artist who invited 1,000 miners to take part in a project to re-enact the Battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike; he was the curator who dared foreground the art that galleries usually frown on by staging a touring exhibition on British folk art. His artistic practice involves being one thing that his omnicompetent heroes Morris and Warhol were not: self-effacing.
Only rarely does Deller appear in his work. Once he memorialised a kindred spirit, Brian Epstein, the late Beatles facilitator, by erecting a plaque near Epstein’s Belgravia home and putting a notice in the Telegraph’s In Memoriam pages that read: “Epstein, Brian Samuel, 27 Aug 1967. Remembered this day and every day.” Unlike Morris, he isn’t the master of arts and crafts: he can’t draw or paint, and if he can weave or make wallpaper, he hasn’t let on.
For the first room of his new show, Love is Enough, at Modern Art Oxford, Deller ingeniously brings together two kinds of Camelot. The first is often imagined in yards of tapestry, featuring earnest knights in tights eternally waylaid by consumptive-looking women. The second comes in acidulous silk screen prints of JFK and Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor. In this room, a 23ft tapestry by Morris and Edward Burne-Jones called The Attainment of the Holy Grail is juxtaposed with Warhol’s celebrity images from what the political journalist and historian Theodore White called ”a magic moment in American history when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House and the barbarians beyond the walls were held back.”
White wasn’t entirely serious when he compared JFK’s enchanted coterie to the court of King Arthur, nor is Deller, but he thinks the parallels are worth exploring so we can revise our stock images of his two heroes. For instance, he argues that both Morris’s tapestry and Warhol’s silkscreens are to do with worship. Really? Warhol was many things, but humble knight bending the knee? ”Like Morris, he hated school. And what did he do? He wrote to Hollywood, this mythical place. ‘Can I have your autograph, Lana Turner?’ And they would send back these messages from the gods and, later, he got to know these people. He became part of the firmament.” Like Sir Galahad in the tapestry, Warhol attained his holy grail.
As for Morris, Deller’s appropriation of the Victorian spares him the indignity of being regarded a “pious bore,” to quote the description the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones used to describe the way Morris is presented in the current National Portrait Gallery show, Anarchy and Beauty. Last year, for instance, Deller commissioned Stuart Sam Hughes to make a mural of Morris for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It consisted of the bearded old communist as vengeful colossus standing in the waters off the Venice Lido, hurling a replica of Roman Abramovichâs 377ft long yacht into the lagoon. The inspiration came to Deller when he visited an earlier Biennale and the Russian billionaire had parked his boat there, obscuring the view and making visitors walk along a narrow corridor past the glowering eyes of his security detail. For Deller, the yacht symbolised art world decadence: “Weâve made our bed with the super rich. There’s not much you can do about it except do a painting.” Did Abramovich see it? “He knew about it. He got like 35 texts telling him.”
He shows me what is going to be in the final room of his Oxford show. It is a roll of wallpaper, or rather the wallpaper design as it mutates over 33ft from the abstract shapes marked out by Morris for the printers to work from, to the finished work. This wallpaper will appear, says Deller, in his exhibition’s final flourish, a section called Flower Power. It will pit Morris’s flora against Warhol’s. “Flowers are the second most depicted subjects in Warhol’s work,” says Deller. “This will be a room of pure enjoyment. These are works of extreme beauty, erotic and sensual. They’re also very political since they lament how we’ve lost our connection with nature, its synergy and holism. For all their differences and contradictions, both Morris and Warhol believed that this is how the world could be.”
Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol, is at Modern Art Oxford 6 December to 8 March 2015; then at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery May to August 2015.