If ever there was an artist for the globalized age of mass media, technology and excess, it would be Andy Warhol. With a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool of his work (the first of its kind in the north of England), it becomes clear that the artist was so unprecedentedly ahead of the times and the fashions, that his work seems born of ironic pathos. Such was Warhol’s obsession with populism, the William Morris-like experiments with mass producing technology, and the overdoses of celebrity obsessed glitterati and phenomena, Transmitting Andy Warhol as an exhibition actually has a surprising amount to say about today’s fashions and trends; a surprising feat for work that often encapsulates other late 20th century eras so succinctly.
The first thing to note about Transmitting Andy Warhol as an entire exhibition is the sheer range of different work. This isn’t a bland point to raise but an important element in the Warhol mentality; that anything shot through the prism and the whole being of the artist would eventually become part of their work. Because of this, the exhibition ranges from paintings, drawings, prints, films and video, magazines, books and just about every other imaginable form of expression. Warhol pioneered the modern interpretation of the factory element of art (quite literally in naming his working collective The Factory) but is important in moving the process of art into this public sphere. Though a blue-print of far earlier artists (quashing our romantic notions of the great genius painter working alone) Warhol defined the role of the ideas man with a team of creators, almost in the sense of a film producer. It’s a blue-print familiar today with the likes of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and others all working from the same “factory” model.
This sense of a factory line perhaps gives the impression that the work is distanced, empty, maybe even emotionally devoid, but such readings undervalue the sense of irony and satire within Warhol’s sardonic collection of weird things. His most famous imagery of Marilyn Monroe (shown here in 1962’s Marilyn Diptych and 1967’s Marilyn Screenprint), seems almost morbidly ironic in almost removing any identity of the person and showing her to become a mere product of the factory line. It seems an even more poignant point considering Monroe’s own fate in the same year Warhol actually produced the diptych on show here.
Warhol’s complete embracement of the commercial and the garish lent his work a fair share of criticism over the years. Some of it seems almost justified but other examples appear to have missed the point. In Transmitting, the two polar ends of this argument are present in the form of Three Brillo Soap Pad Boxes (1964) and the advert, Underground Sundae (1968). The former is a ridiculous though amusing play on objects within the context of a gallery space, increasing the size of normality as if to effectively laugh at the art world’s own absurdity. The latter, which is a genuine advert for Schrafft’s Ice Cream Parlour in New York, is more complex in that the line of parody is now blurred; Warhol is clearly doing something different with the form of the advert but the sheer context of such form begs for it to be undermined. Far from people, objects and material items would have their fifteen minutes of fame in Warhol’s world.
Warhol’s video and film work in general is often his most interesting line of art, in spite of it being almost diametrically opposed to his more easily digestible celebrity prints. His film experiment Empire (1964) is on show though perhaps the space isn’t quite right for such a work. Coming in at just over eight hours long, the video is meant to be viewed in relaxed spaces and communally, with visitors coming and going; the strange static nature of the film subtly building communities around it just like the building within it. The potential for such a reception to be recreated here is entirely impossible in the cold, behaved world of modern-day gallery spaces.
The themes of excess and celebrity obsession invade Transmitting but it manages to curate it in a way that seems prescient, especially as Warhol’s work is itself so reproduced for even the most disinterested of buyers. Yet Warhol seems to be well ahead of the media game in his work on just about every front. His celebrity prints, his adverts, his links with musicians and bands, all points to someone who predicted the oncoming interdisciplinary nature that the arts would have to take in the post World War Two west. Alongside posters for concerts he designed (advertising his Plastic Fantastic nonetheless) are LPs, magazines and even sheet music from the likes of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground; Warhol conquered forms in the way that modern technology of today insists on each of us doing even if, like Warhol himself famously predicted, we would become a generation of narcissists in the process.
Words and photos by Adam Scovell.