“I have a social disease, I have to go out every night”
Okay, some might object to my title in the belief that John Lennon deserves that claim to fame much more than does Warhol, however considering that the Beatles only hit the scene in 1960 where was Warhol had begun displaying his art in the 1950s he, at least in my humble opinion, is much more deserving. Anyway I have generally found Warhol in the past to be fairly hit or miss with his artwork considering that the only one that I (and probably quite a few of us) are familiar with is his painting of the Campbells soup can. However, when I learnt that an exhibition of his artwork was on display at the NGV
(the National Gallery of Victoria) I knew that I had to go and check it out. To say that I was pretty much blown away is probably an understatement. What I can say though is that I seriously underestimated Warhol’s brilliance as an artist.
|Yes, there is actually more than one
As you probably noticed from the poster the exhibition wasn’t just of Warhol’s art but also of a Chinese Artist named Ai Wei Wei, however because both artists’ works are quite extensive I will focus only on Warhol in this post and will devote another post entirely to Wei Wei (especially since one of his works of art involves him travelling around the world and taking photos of him flipping the birdy at some of the world’s famous land marks).
“I am a deeply superficial person”
Well, I could go into intricate details of where he was born, where he went to school, who his childhood sweetheart was but I will leave that to Wikipedia
(though I’m not sure it goes into intricate details of every person he dated in high school). However I do note that his last name was originally Warhola (which means that he changed it sometime later), and his first job was an advertising artist in New York. He was actually really, really good at that job, and had developed a way that he could create artistic copy really quickly, something that he would take into his artistic career. Another interesting thing that I discovered is that he did a lot of his artwork using silk-screen printing, something that I hadn’t discovered previously (though most of the artwork that I have seen weren’t from Warhol’s era; they generally came before it).
If there is one thing that I have to say about Warhol and that he is the quintessential American artist. In a way he seemed to know the American society and embraced it’s crass commercialism in a way that helped us understand that lying behind this desire to make as much money as possible, and to live as wealthy a lifestyle as possible, that there was a deep and vibrant culture. Take the Campbells Soup paintings (which, as I discovered, there are more than one) – Warhol takes something that is manufactured and mass distributed, something that every American knows because all they have to do is to open their pantry door and there it is sitting on the shelf, and paints a picture of it.
However, he doesn’t just paint one picture, he paints a number of them, all different in a way, but also all the same. This is the nature of modern society, where we walk into our supermarkets and see shelves full of products that are all the same, yet we will spend our time staring at these items trying to determine which is the best one to buy. We look at the used-by date, we feel each bottle of milk to determine which is the coldest, we go to the back of the shelf knowing (or believing) that that is where the newer items are stored (and having worked stacking shelves in a supermarket, I can say that that is where they are supposed to be put, not that it always happens that way).
However there is something about commercialism, and business, that appealed to Warhol. As he said: being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art, making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.
“In the future everybody will have fifteen minutes of fame”
Warhol embraced, and in a way added life to America’s cult of celebrity. Mind you this is not surprising because Warhol was a celebrity himself. Sure, he was mostly active in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, which was around the time the cult of celebrity really began to take off, but once again what we are seeing is a change in the way that society were idolising the rich and famous. In years gone by it was the rulers and the aristocrats, the writers and the painters, that would dominate this scene, however with the increased popularity in film and music, and the commercialisation of this medium, a shift was beginning to occur.
You see, what we were beginning to see was a new type of person entering societies collective conscious in the form of the actor and the musician. The the past one did not see a play based on who was acting but rather who was writing. The actors were restricted based upon location, meaning that somebody in New York could not easily travel to London to see a specific performer. The actor simply was an instrument of the writer’s art. However film brought about something new, the rise of the celebrity. All of a sudden the writer (or the director) moved into the background, and it was the actor who came to the forefront. Suddenly people began to see films not because of the director, but because of the actor.
Thus Warhol would paint portraits of this new style of celebrity, yet it wasn’t like the portraits of old, but portraits that reflected the changing style of the world in which we live. Being life like wasn’t not important, but rather capturing the essence of the subject, and the nature of the world of the celluloid. Not only were we seeing the rise of a new aristocracy, but we were also seeing a new style in the way in which these images were being captured. Once again this had come about through the development of the camera and of film. One no longer needed to spend hours painting a portrait as life like as possible as all one needed to do now was to take a photo.
Another interesting piece was one which he called ‘Vote McGovern’. The Democrats had requested that he create something for McGovern’s campaign against Nixon in 1972, so he painted a portrait that I am sure is not what the Democrats where looking for – basically it was Richard Nixon with a sickly green face and the words ‘Vote McGovern’ below. This probably suggests that one of the things that Warhol was not interested in was politics, but it also goes to the heart of the political process. The whole idea is to create the image of the other side being bad for the country, and in doing so you convince the voters to vote for you. In this image Nixon is a sickly character, no doubt not fit to be president, which leaves us to vote McGovern.
“Being born is like being kidnapped, and then sold into slavery”
A funny thing about modern art is its experimental nature. Sure Warhol was a painter, but his art went far beyond just the canvas and the easel (though he actually produced a lot of his art through silk-screen printing). He experimented with film, and also with an idea of the ‘Found Object’ which was originally developed by Marcel Duchamp (of the toilet bowl fame
). Okay, DuChamp may have gotten away with grabbing a urinal and signing and dating it, and then putting it in an art gallery and calling it art, but when it has been done once it can’t really be done a second time. Yet Warhol, who was heavily influenced by Duchamp, went a step further – he took a box, filled it with concrete, and signed it.
In one sense the idea of scrawling one’s name in concrete (and I’m sure we all did that at least once in our youth) is seen to be little more than vandalism, but it also creates a sense of permanency, and in a way that is something that we all want, a sense of being permanent, being remembered, and having a legacy to pass on. When the concrete sets our name is left in that concrete and everybody who walks over it, even as fleeting as it may be, will see the name in the block. In a way it is a part of the psychology behind why it has now become the fashion of a movie star to place their hands in the concrete on Hollywood Boulevard (and this has also gone over to Hong Kong).
Yet the concrete in the box – is this saying something about our modern consumer society? We buy something in the box, but it is fleeting, it breaks down, and in the end all it becomes is little more than a paperweight. I guess that is the essence of the artist, the fleeting nature of the world and of life and this desire to create something that will last and will be remembered – which is why we sign our names in the wet concrete.
Another thing I noticed was the crate of silver coke bottles. Mind you, Warhol created an awful lot of these things, and to be honest the Coca-Cola Company wasn’t all that impressed with him using their product as art, probably because they actually aren’t stupid and could see it as some form of criticism directed against them, which is why they issued a cease and desist order. On the other hand it probably, in the end, comes down to money, and the fact that Warhol was making money out of a trade-marked product.
Another aspect of this could be reflective of our modern, consumerist society. Things may be different, but deep down everything is the same. Could it not also be the case with the pair of jeans. If we go to The Gap, or we go to Target, if we by some no-name product, or a pair of Levi’s, isn’t it the case that there isn’t actually anything different about them? These jeans are simply a pair of jeans and the only thing that differentiates them from the other is the brand.
Yet it could also be the case of mechanisation. The silver coke bottles are reflective of our mechanised society. They are moved through the assembly line where they are filled, sealed, and labelled, and then shunted out into boxes. The cottage industry is dead and now everything that is consumed is created by machines, by robots. The question is whether there is actually anything different between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, or are they just the same product in different packages?
Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.
Film is another medium that Warhol used for his work, his most famous one being entitled Empire, which is basically an eight hour film of the Empire State Building at Night. Here is one segment:
As somebody suggests on the Youtube Channel, don’t worry if you missed any of it because it goes for eight hours, and nothing all that much happens.
However film is a medium that the artist can use to show change, and also transience. Where in one sense they are trying to capture the moment, whether it be on canvas (or silk, as the case may be), or in sculpture, on film we see the nature of change, and the transient nature of life. Mind you, despite Empire lasting eight hours the film does come to an end, at which point you can then go back to the beginning and start all over again. Maybe this is the cyclical nature of the world, where things seem to always go in circles and in a sense nothing changes, yet despite the fact that nothing changes nothing is also permanent.
“I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic”
The final thing I wish to show are a series of paintings on American mythology. These characters have all come to sit in the consciousness of the American psyche. However these aren’t necessarily real characters, in the way that Washington, Lincoln, and even Jesse James, were real people. This is a created mythology, one that was designed in the board rooms and marketing departments of the major corporations.
In many cultures (actually all of them) mythology comes about through history, and as historical events occur, the actors in these events are placed into our collective consciousness which tell us stories about who we are and where we come from. Our myths create our identity and define us as a culture. Yet the mythology of the United States, at least in the eyes of Warhol, is not the same. To him he is living in a consumerist society where the mythology has been defined not so much from historical events, or real people, but from created characters. Sure, the United States does have its heroes, but these are slowly being subsumed by a culture based around a plastic Hollywood.
One thing I should mention though is that we can probably add a new character to this list – Bart Simpson.
I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anyone could ever want to own.
Artsy has a pretty impressive website dedicated to the life and works of Andy Warhol.