Why do I like Andy Warhol? A review of the Warhol Retrospective at the Tate Modern, 03/11/20.
The exhibition began with some drawings of Warhol’s from the 50s, before he was famous. It was interesting to see Warhol as a young artist, being rejected from galleries, unsure of his credibility in the art world. Something I sometimes forget would have been a reality even for one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. Here, in his sensitive line drawings of nude men, we see some of Warhol’s desire to shock, but in a softer, more self-conscious way than in his later work.
The second room was full of some of Warhol’s most famous pieces, the Campbell’s Soup Cans, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley. Before the exhibition I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to these pieces. They are so famous, it was hard to really see them as art. When I looked at photograph of any of these paintings, all I could see was the trademark of Andy Warhol and Pop Art, and all the various ways these pieces have been commercialised, made into bags, mugs, etc…
Seeing them in real life was completely different. The scale was one thing, the cans of soup in rows and rows going higher than the top of my head, I could suddenly imagine how it must have felt to see this painting when something like this had never been done before. To see Pop Art as brand-new and shocking, huge, brightly coloured and imposing. There was something written next to the Coca Cola bottles painting, a quote from Warhol that went "A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
This made me re-think Warhol’s message about advertising, and brands. I think we often see his work in quite a simple way, assuming that Warhol’s exposure of the media and advertising was simply to show us its flaws, or how it was dominating our lives. But here, you can also see Warhol’s enjoyment of the concept of a brand like Coca-Cola.
I think actually Warhol has a great talent for impartiality. He seems to just present things, without any accompanying philosophy or ideology. He doesn’t preach, or tell us not to trust someone, he just shows us things. He shows us things lots of times, in lots of colours, and lets us decide why he did that. Perhaps he had a very important message, perhaps he did it for no reason at all.
My favourite part of the exhibition was the third room. This room was completely covered in silver wallpaper. On the walls where photographs of Warhol, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgewick, shooting films, and having parties in the factory. On the other wall a few of Warhol’s films were playing on loop.
There was one that I particularly liked. It was Bob Dylan, sitting on a chair, completely still. Occasionally he slightly moved a hand or an eyebrow, but all-in-all he was like a statue. Every now and then someone would walk by in the background, just frequently enough so you didn’t start believing you were just staring at a photograph. What I loved about this film was how it felt almost like a staring competition with Warhol himself. Who would look away first, would I get bored and move on, or would he end the film? I think this is something Warhol plays with a lot in his films, testing how long people can endure something with no sound, and almost no movement. It's interesting because once you’ve watched for a while, and got over your restlessness, you become completely immersed in the film, you become still and silent as well, and then you begin to really enjoy it. I started thinking about the way that when the Velvet Underground were first performing in venues, they would play one song that lasted over half an hour, and they seemed to deliberately make it hard to listen to, and many people would leave before the end. I think Warhol liked to have a secret, and to give you the opportunity to be in on that secret, if only you can sit still for long enough for him to tell you.
The final room in the exhibition was Sixty Last Suppers displayed in a dark room with nothing else in it. This gave an immense amount of gravitas to the piece, almost as if the painting itself was an object of religious worship. There was a long bench in the middle of the room, facing the painting. People entered the room and looked at it for a few seconds, and then quietly and carefully made their way to the bench, to sit in reverence of the piece. I thought how funny it was that we were all treating this room like a church, nodding to the altar, and then silently making our way to our pew. When the altar was in fact a painting, and clearly not one that revered the idea of something being sacred. Warhol’s decision to make this work in the image of a replica of The Last Supper rather than of the original painting, and the repetition of the image suggests an irreverence for the idea of the sacred original object. The added formality of social distancing made the scene even more bizarre, as people stopped, and started, and walked twice around the room to avoid coming within a metre of someone else.
This made me think about the way the concept, or intention is everything in a piece of art. People worship this painting because they want to work out what the meaning is. Warhol’s intentions behind any of his paintings are mysteriously unclear, but there is no doubt that there was an intention. These pieces were not made randomly, and that, I think, is what makes people so fascinated, and at times angry, about Warhol’s work. It frustrates people to see a painting, and not quite be able to work out the hidden meaning behind the piece, and so we sit in our pew, looking at it and looking at it, hoping we will hear the voice of God, or in this case, Andy Warhol, who will explain everything.
The overall feeling I took from this exhibition, was that Andy Warhol had been there, in the sense that his artwork seemed very much intended to provoke a response from the viewer, and that I had given exactly the intended response. Although Andy Warhol passed away before I was born, he still managed to communicate with me, and get a reaction here in 2020. Throughout the two hours I was in the exhibition, I could picture Warhol laughing as I gazed thoughtfully at his painting of naked man’s bum, trying hard not to laugh in case another visitor to the gallery thought we weren’t appreciating art properly. Or admiring a particularly beautiful abstract painting, only to read the label and then act as if you knew all along that it was painted with urine. A big part of Warhol’s work seemed to be playing with the gallery, remotely interacting with the viewer, which is something I only came to realise when I got to see his work in the flesh.