Updated: Feb 6
Self Portrait. 1986, Tate. © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
He defined pop culture as we know it.
All the obsession with celebrity culture and self-promotion that we see on social media, as well as the commercialism and mass production characteristic of Western capitalism, was amplified by one man: Andy Warhol.
It was a great pleasure to enjoy the Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern, which has been extended to 15th November this year. You must go. I had wanted to see it long before it opened in March, but due to lockdown, it had taken me up until the beginning of the week to venture there.
This was not a wasted journey. The first major exhibition of Warhol’s work in the UK for more than a decade, the experience was both informative and inspiring to anyone not properly acquainted with the artist’s work.
We all know who Andy Warhol was. He is immortalised, not only through his body of work but also through numerous pop culture references. But not many people know his story. The exhibition is an attempt to tell that story, all at the same time as exhibiting the breadth of his artistry.
Everyone knows the Marilyn prints and Campbell’s soup cans; they are cornerstones of the pop art movement and 20th-century art in general. But not many people would also know that Warhol ran a magazine, managed rock bands such as The Velvet Underground, was a prolific filmmaker and, when he wasn’t busy socialising on the celebrity circuit of New York City, volunteered at soup kitchens and frequented church services till his dying day. The exhibition successfully highlighted most of these things, but some more detail would have been appreciated.
To people who aren’t aware of the significance of Warhol’s work, as well as both the social and cultural impact that it had on society in America at the time, it may seem that Warhol’s work was unremarkable and produced in a similar vein to much of the art we see today. But this necessitates the point to be made, which is that what Warhol did was revolutionary for its time. The art world, and the world at large, would not be where it is today if it hadn’t been for Warhol.
The 1960s was when Warhol’s career as a painter really took off (he had previously worked as an illustrator). This was a time of immense change, and Warhol was there to express the zeitgeist of 1960s America. It was a period of economic prosperity on one level and political instability on another. And perhaps the beauty of Warhol’s work is its ability to express the simultaneous glamour and ugliness seen in American society during those years. On one side of the coin, there are colourful prints of cultural icons such as Elvis and Jackie Kennedy; on the other, there are brutal depictions of violence and death, best expressed in his Death and Disaster series. Warhol epitomises the at once seductive nature of the American dream, whilst simultaneously shattering such rose-tinted notions with the cruel realities of life as it was in America at that time.
One must also not forget that Warhol was an openly gay man at a time when being so was highly stigmatised. Notwithstanding, he was unabashed in who he was, and his sexuality permeated much of his work. This can be seen with various nods to cultural icons who are nowadays equally regarded as queer icons, not least of all Marilyn Monroe, but also through his work with the transgender actress, Candy Darling, who starred in many of Warhol’s films and was considered one of his ‘superstars’. He was a hero for the LGBT community at a time when being LGBT was frowned upon by many Americans. Many contemporaries considered his work to be ‘too gay’, but these slights didn’t affect Warhol in the least.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Warhol’s work is trying to figure out what his intentions were. Did he intend to mock the society he lived in? Given the supposed irony of mass-producing Brillo pad box replicas and various other consumer goods, along with the mass production of prints featuring notable figures, including Chairman Mao (who vehemently opposed the capitalist system), as their subjects, it begs the question: was Warhol satirising or celebrating the capitalist world he lived in? It might be the case that he intended to do both.
It is well-documented that Warhol was not a political figure. But even so, he was still attuned to what was going on in the world around him and was an important commentator on these events through his work. His artistry exposed, perhaps unwittingly, the world around him in all its glory and all its shame. He played with aesthetics and different media, in order to create a world where everyone has their 15 minutes of fame. That, my friends, is the world we live in today.