Friday, January 09, 2015

Transmitting Warhol at Tate Liverpool

Its been a while since I've seen a single-artist show at Tate Liverpool, and the current "Transmitting Warhol" show makes clear that we should see more in the North. I've grown up with Warhol, he's been there as an iconic image maker all my life, and some of his most famous pictures, the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell's Soup Cans, Mao, Double Elvis I've probably seen half a dozen times. So prolific was he, and so often did he create multiples, that his work is amongst the easiest of great 20th century artists to see.

Yet that very ubiquity - and the media images of Warhol himself: in the sixties in the Factory, or later in life with his Simpsons style cartoon white hair - can obscure both art and artist. For Warhol began as a commercial illustrator and this exhibition includes works from early in his career right through to his death. There's rarely been an artist who has been so easily able to combine the commercial and the aesthetic. When, say, Damian Hirst, dabbles in album cover art for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, it doesn't feel a critical part of his work, just a paid job. With Warhol the two things are intermingled. Pop art = pop culture. I'd forgotten as well about his involvement with Interview magazine, an iconic monthly magazine that acts as a strange tableau of the briefly famous. For fame as much as popular culture was Warhol's currency. It seems there are three types of "icon" in Warhol's work - the truly iconic such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis; the made famous - his Factory superstars such as Edie Sedgewick; and the "famous for 15 minutes" icons of contemporary pop culture. What is interesting is how his treatment of these differs. For he never painted Marilyn or Elvis - rather he took a single image, and reworked it endlessly. On the other hand his Factory superstars  (and the one thing missing from the exhibition were his screen tests - but you can find these on Youtube) were famous for nothing other than how they looked, icons only in Warhol's universe, always subjugated to his fame. The temporary fame of contemporary culture is almost an acting out of Warhol's predictions - and with Interview magazine, his films, and commercial work where iconic record covers like the "Velvet Underground and Nico" are joined by much less interesting ones by Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Billy Squier, he becomes almost a secondary documenter of this culture.

In this sense Warhol's long prolific career finds its main moorings in the 1960s. In many ways he seems to exemplify so much of the visual culture of that decade - or at least that aspect that has lasted beyond pastiche. A room at the exhibition is held over for a recreation of the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" with films projected onto four walls and a soundtrack of Velvet Underground live takes, particularly "Sister Ray" playing over the top. This, I realise, is my world - somehow Warhol's American Pop Art was a democratisation of glamous as well as soup cans and Brillo boxes, that "let in" suburban British kids such as myself. That crossover with pop music seems crucial particularly since Warhol only seemed to have the most transient interest in it. The Velvet Underground may seem the perfect "art rock" band for him, but they also seem an oddity - for they were out of step with the music of the time, and moreover, their currency was a rawness which seems at odds with the sophistication of advertising culture and the rest of Pop Art. This eclecticism reminds me that Warhol was a very successful outsider. I can't, for instance, imagine Hirst or Emin having the psychological distance required to be relevant to be both a fawning art world and an avant garde. Besides, there's something about Warhol's collaboration which seems uniquely open - he seemed to have a genius to create value by association, without corrupting what it was that was valuable. So that first Velvet Underground album is unproduced despite being "produced" by him, the one lasting contribution to the band being his hooking them up with Nico (an odd absence from the exhibition). Similarly we see Warhol's films, his screen prints, his multiples, and they are allowed to breathe - he is almost a curator gathering them together. The film with Edie conversing with her own image on video tape seems remarkably untouched, or untouchable. She is the "superstar" and Warhol is there as the artist offstage. That he was his own "character" - the white haired "Drella" always taking photographs, always bringing the late 20th century into his artistic spaces rather than going out and finding it - seems equally as vital.

Its not a comprehensive show, but by concentrating on the idea of Warhol's use of materials, his range, and his different techniques I found "Transmitting Warhol" a riveting and fascinating show that reconnected me with the artist above and beyond the iconic images which sometimes seem to define the "Warholian" approach. He was the only pop artist who remained immersed in pop culture - in itself remarkable in the New York of the early 1960s, coming from an artistic avant garde where folk or jazz would have been the more likely art forms. His use of film seems increasingly important and separate somehow from the idea of cinema - and perhaps its that documenting of a space and time, now half a century ago, that creates an ongoing ripple effect for the viewer.

The show is on for another month and its well worth a visit.

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