The idea of yet another Andy Warhol exhibition was greeted by me with a sigh of under-expectation. After the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, which I did not see, but heard was underwhelming, I was not expecting too much from the recent Warhol fever in Paris, including the current exhibition at the Grand Palais. However, I am pleased to say, I was pleasantly surprised, even excited, by the opportunity to rediscover my admiration for Warhol.
Even though I have seen his work many times over the years, there is something about it that makes yet another visit worthwhile and rewarding. If only to be reminded how the world has changed in the not-such-a-long time since the days of Warhol’s factory. What was radical, experimental, daring and controversial then, now looks Romantic, steeped in history, and dare I say it, bowing to the commercial and aesthetic demands of the bourgeois art world. And the reason for this is primarily because Warhol’s innovations have had such an impact on the shape of art history that today, they are the very foundation of how we think about, judge and value post-60s painting.
The discoveries of these paintings go way beyond being reminded of the gestural mastery of the screen printing process, or the signature Warhol explorations of portraiture, the iconicity of the face, and the high modernist revelations about repetition, seriality and originality. For example, the exhibition provoked a conversation between me and my American friend about gender and sexual identity, how much it has changed since Warhol painted his portraits of everyone who was anyone on the art, entertainment, business and political stages. In Warhol’s portraits, Ethel, Jackie, Caroline and Liz routinely pose in a way that performs their sexuality, their identity as glamorous, famous, women of the 1960s and 70s. They wear sunglasses, their hair is tossed back, unable to face the camera suggesting a fear of being seen. The surface repetitions of Warhol’s process is everywhere repeated in their identity-construction as stars, celebrities, as wealthy, apparently independent, women. While we look back on these portraits as indicative of the historical period of their production, somewhat nostalgically to a time when fame and fortune was so easily performed, the paintings have a more complex effect on us. They are intriguing because even though they embrace all the questions of repetition, reproduction, the plasticity and lack of authenticity of painting (as well as of the sitter’s identity) the works also trouble the ease of such assumptions. Even in the paintings where there are two, four, even six, images of the person in question —Mao and Warhol himself, Marilyn and Marlon — never is one image the same as any other. And thus, the images refer to the individuality of the painted portrait, as well as the inability of the depicted to “sit still,” to be represented by a single identity, in a single image. Like each image in the series, each person is thus given an inimitable individuality.
This tension between the manufacture of an image and the ultimate inability of the image, any image, to be quoted or quotable extends outwards from the sitter, to the painting, to the role of Warhol in the production and creativity process. Yes, all of the series are made by his team of workers at the factory, and yes Warhol is visibly preoccupied with the idea of effacing himself, both through the use of the screening process (the absence of the brushstroke and gesture), and the absence of signature. And yet, there is no mistaking Andy Warhol everywhere in these works. They are iconically Warhol, touched everywhere by his eye for the painted portrait through the lens of film and photography.
Highlights of the exhibition will vary for each viewer, depending on your history, your age and your interests, but there will always be something to connect with. For me, one of the highlights was the series of photographs of Deborah Harry from 1980. On the second floor of the huge exhibition, the series is chosen as an example of Warhol’s art making process in all its various stages. The photographs are in and of themselves exquisite. Warhol’s whiting out of the background through extremely high key lighting such that Harry is surrounded by a sea of white light has the effect of making her appear vulnerable, and tenderly innocent, as though she is drawn or etched into a blanket of silence that surrounds her. These photographs show Warhol’s sensitivity to lighting and image composition worthy of the best known photographers of his period. Similarly, they show his capacity to magically reveal an internal life of a star where none was thought to exist. Warhol’s proficiency with a still camera serves to reinforce not just his curiosity and dexterity with many different media, but his mastery of them all. While Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol is indeed “grand” to the point of becoming unfocussed and unwieldy, the advantage of its huge reach is that we get to see Warhol as the talented artist that he was. If nothing else the Grand Palais exhibition confirms that he was much more than his legacy as it exists in the popular imagination: manufacturer of infinitely reproducible Campbells Soup cans and images of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, the Mona Lisa and the electric chair.
If the photographs of Deborah Harry are among the most exciting in the exhibition, the most disappointing has to be the display of film material. Warhol’s screen tests are extraordinary and unique works of art. In them, he placed the subject before the camera for four minutes, let the film roll and walked away. The result is an opportunity to watch the figures in his entourage in what becomes their most intimate moments. Like 1960s versions of real tv, the screen tests catch the sitters watching themselves being watched. The multitude of ways that they negotiate what becomes an invasion of their self-image, be it manufactured or otherwise, makes for a powerful film viewing experience. Over the course of four minutes, the likes of Dennis Hopper, Pat Hartley, Jane Holzer, Ingrid Superstar and many more become revealed – or not, which is, in itself, revealing. However, in an underestimation of the capacity of their viewer, or perhaps to save space, the Grand Palais exhibits a limited number in a grid, on a single wall, on screens no bigger than 10 x 10 inches. Thus, the screen tests are presented as a whole and we are actively discouraged from seeing one at a time. Rather, we are directed to skirt around and over the multiple screens, eager to put the face to the name as it is laid out on a corresponding grid beside the screens. The poignancy, reflection and provocation of these extraordinary images is completely lost.
Likewise, an excerpt of Empire (1964) transferred to a DVD is looped and projected on the grand staircase of the Grand Palais, with frustrating consequences. The quality of the DVD is appalling, and this, in addition to the fact that the only place from which to stand still and watch the 50 minutes of a 10 hour film is in other people’s way on the steps, makes it impossible to have any notion of the magic of Empire. Again, this is a film that demands time, energy and focus from the dedicated viewer as it slowly reveals its unique vision of the Empire State Building, film as a medium, and ultimately, of our own selves, of who we are in front of a 10 hour film. Thus, the placement of a bad quality DVD at the top of the stairs, turns it into a sound bite quotation that has nothing to do with Empire. The mere presence of this film was disturbing.
Much more could be said, but go see it for yourself and as is the case with any enormous, overreaching exhibition, pick out the works, in this case the series or genre of works, that appeal, and let Warhol reveal himself to you anew – in the way that only great art has the ability to do.
- Frances Guerin
(*Images, from top to bottom:
(c) 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation for the visuals arts inc. / Adagp, Paris, 2009
(c) 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation for the visuals arts inc. / Adagp, Paris, 2009
Ethel Scull 36 times
202,6 x 363,2 cm acrylique, peinture métalisée et encre sérigraphique sur toile
Whitney Museum of American Art / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Whitney Museum of American Art / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation for the visuals arts inc. / Adagp, Paris, 2009
35,6 x 35,6 cm
Acrylique et encre sérigraphique sur toile
The Andy warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
© 2009 Andy Warhol Foundation for the visuals arts inc. / Adagp, Paris, 2009)