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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Andy Warhol

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Two versions of Andy Warhol’s Debbie Harry, 1980.
Two versions of Andy Warhol’s Debbie Harry, 1980.

Tate Modern- London

12 March - 15 November 2020

Tate Modern presents a major new retrospective on the work of Andy Warhol, after almost 20 years to the previous exhibition. In the last 30 years, Warhol had four retrospectives, including one just a year ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

There’s next to nothing we don’t know about Andy Warhol.

Few American artists are as ever-present and instantly recognizable as him.

Through his carefully cultivated persona and willingness to experiment with non-traditional art-making techniques, Warhol understood the growing power of images in contemporary life and helped to expand the role of the artist in society. According to Tate exhibition this is another Warhol not only an artist of his time but of our time, as his art predictive almost everything about how we lived today.

The first room of the exhibition is about Andrew Warhola’s biography: an outsider, son of Catholic immigrants from modern day Slovakia, a young gay man growing up in the industrial town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Religious imagery and the glamour of Hollywood movies interested him from a young age. In 1942 his father died and left his savings for his youngest child to go to college, where he studied pictorial design. In 1949 he moved to New York to work as a commercial illustrator.

In this room there are several drawings of men and his first serious art film Sleep. It was made over several nights in the summer 1963 with a 16mm camera filming the poet John Giorno, his lover, as sleeping.

The final version repeats many scenes and last over five hours. It is a projection in slow motion, giving a dream-like-feel but at the same time Warhol turned the film into something that could be treated like a painting hanging on the wall. A kind of video art, a voyeuristic view 36 years before the first Big Brother.

The next room is the “Greatest Hits room”, a synopsis with all his pop art masterpieces: black and white advertisement, television, Coke bottles, Campbell soup, sculpture from Brillo boxes.

Andy Warhol, 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 and.Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola bottles, 1962
Andy Warhol, 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 and.Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola bottles, 1962

In a period in which the Abstract Expressionism’s quest to transcend ordinary life through the spiritual and mythic, Warhol found inspiration and even heroism in the everyday objects.

Using repetition, subtle surface variations, and different colour combinations, he transformed quotidian subject matter into optically charged, painterly fields, combining advertising imagery with expressive painting. This create a clean graphic style now Known as Pop Art.

In this period Warhol began screen-printing photographic imagery directly onto his canvases to create fine art. One of his subjects was the fascination with celebrities and famous movie stars, often reflecting larger cultural obsessions as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych 1962
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych 1962

Marilyn diptych was created shortly after her fatal overdose. It is possible to see the transition of the saturated and strong colour on the left till the white colour on the right. It is as her face is dissolving as a dead mask.

Death is a repeating topic in his paintings as in the series Death and Disaster, featured images from the magazines of the period that captured the spectacle of violence, as we can see in the exhibition, one of a car crash, another of a young woman leaping from a window to her fate.

The next room is dedicated to the Factory, which was his experimental art studio and social space. Opened in 1963, it was cover in silver paint and foil for his silkscreen canvases and the site of his new interest in underground film making. He realized the Screen Test from 1964-6 in which he documented the people who passed through the Factory. Their friends and superstars sat in front of the camera with nothing to do but endure its gaze for the duration of the film reel.

In 1965, Warhol announced his retirement from painting in favour of film making and he staged his farewell in one of the New York galleries. Tate reproduced one of that room called

The Silverclouds installation, Tate Modern 2020
The Silverclouds installation, Tate Modern 2020

Silver Clouds, a metallic silver balloons filled with helium floated and interacted with by the viewer. The silver colour was intimate associated with Warhol: his silver Factory, his silver paintings, and his silver-grey wig.

In 1968 the Factory moved to a new space: the “silver period” was over as the old spirit of the open-door policy. On 3 June 1968, the writer Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in the chest and abdomen, damaging his internal organs. He was declared death but doctors managed to revive him.

This episode affected his physical and mental health for the rest of his life.

In the 1970’s he went back to painting with a new series of Mao, after the president Nixon visited China, making the leader of the communist China a mass-produced commodity. In the same room is possible to see another subject about death Skulls, reflecting on the art historical tradition of the “memento mori”.

Andy Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen, 1974. Photograph: © 2020 the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts,
Andy Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen, 1974.

In the series Ladies and Gentlemen (1975), commissioned by the art dealer Luciano Anselmino, he depicted New York City black and latinx drag queens and trans women. Warhol engaged more explicitly with drag and the performance of queer identity than in any other paintings he had made since the 1950s, creating a specific pop art style. Adopting a distinctive painterly style for the portraits, he worked directly on the canvases, often with his fingers, to create an unusually layered, textured surface in a wide colour palette that showed the gender fluidity and mutability on the used a liquidness on the colours.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s Warhol was an international celebrity. His experiments extended to the television projects as Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes on MTV, on the magazine Interview, which Warhol started in 1969, and in his countless TV, tabloid and society page appearances.

Beautiful are the portraits of Debbie Harry in violet and turquoise, lime and sulphur colour-ways; Mick Jagger in 1975, with the wrong-shaped head and hairdo, in tarry dun and Elastoplast pink, his youthful beauty squandered.

As the 1980’s progressed Warhol focused in more political and religious subjects.

One of the major concerns of the time was the Cold War between USA and USSR. In Statue of Liberty, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the statue, Warhol laid military camouflage over this well-known symbol of freedom.

In the 1980’s he worked on his own image in his art, creating what came to be known as his “fright wig” self-portraits for an exhibition in London. His wig takes on status in art enriching the intense expression on his face.

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait,1986
Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait , 1986

The last work of the exhibition is The Last Supper, sixty paintings reproducing a 19th century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Choosing to copy a copy for the original, he wanted to evoke the re-enactment of the Last Supper that take place during every Mass.

Made in the early years of the ongoing AIDS crisis, the painting offers a meditation on militancy, spiritual sacrifice, and mourning, perhaps expressing the complexities of Warhol’s experience as both a gay man and a Byzantine Catholic.

The Last Supper would turn out to be his final works as he will die after an operation on 22 February 1987, at the age of 58.

This exhibition reveals new complexities about the Warhol we think we know, giving a new view of his 1970’s and 1980’s works, and making him closer to the new generations with his obsession with consumerism, celebrity worship and innovative and creative used of social media.

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