Well, it’s been a mighty long 15 minutes. Andy Warhol once predicted that everyone would be famous for a quarter of an hour – yet, nearly three decades after he died, his own fame shows no sign of abating. In fact, as a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool proves, his importance just grows and grows.
Warhol is best known today as a purveyor of Pop. His early-Sixties images of Coke bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans, as well as silkscreen Marilyn Monroes, suggest an artist at one with America’s average Joe. Yet he was much else besides. Any half-decent look at his oeuvre reveals a figure who looked out beyond the Sixties and unerringly into the 21st-century.
His legacy is felt, in part, in his transformation of what being an artist could mean. Starting out as a commercial illustrator on Madison Avenue, he rejected the distinction between high art and low: not so much in his choice of subjects (humble foodstuffs like soup had been celebrated by still-life painters for centuries), but rather in his range of media and platforms for distributing art to the public at large.
Thus we see films like Empire, a static, eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building; his cover designs for albums like the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers; copies of the celebrity magazine he published, Interview; and his loose-formed autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a lifestream of mundane details.
In turn, the silkscreen Marilyns, reproduced repeatedly on single canvases, reinvented portraiture. And Warhol even took to managing a rock group: The Velvet Underground. In the exhibition’s most memorable room, the curators have recreated a performance of Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI): an experimental stage show Warhol conceived for the band in 1966.
In a total-art environment, film images from several projectors, as well as strobe lights, were cast upon the Velvets as they played. Alas, Lou Reed and co aren’t around to play for us in Liverpool (they’re replaced by a soundtrack), but one can see in EPI the roots of the big, multi-sensory pop-concert spectacles of today.
Warhol, in short, was every bit as protean as Picasso. His detractors often deride him as the grubby godfather of todayâs artist-as-moneymaker (Hirst, Koons et al). Yet, again, this analysis is superficial. Look closely and you’ll see an artist fully engaged with society around him — not to mention eerily aware of where it was heading.
With films like Empire and Sleep (five-hour footage of his friend, the poet John Giorno, sleeping), Warhol anticipated both reality TV and surveillance culture. With his multiple visions of Monroe, Elvis and others, he foresaw our unhealthy obsession with celebrity in a mass media age – to the point where these people lose their humanity and become just images repeated and distributed.
With his fondness for documenting the banal, you might say Warhol anticipated social media. And then there’s Twelve Electric Chairs: a grid comprising a photo reproduced a dozen times of the chair where suspected Soviet spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had been executed. The original image is reduced (and blurred) towards to the point of abstraction: the overall effect being that of patterned wallpaper. The unsettling implication is that in a society of media saturation, the shocking is rendered unshocking.
It’s to the curators’ credit that they don’t bludgeon the visitor over the head, but allow a broad, well-selected display of Warhol’s work to speak for itself, encouraging us to draw our own conclusions about his significance.
My own conclusion? That he’s right up there with Orwell as a doomsdayish prophet of the world we now inhabit.