Pop Art Prince Andy Warhol (1928-1987) during his day in the sun profoundly changed people’s perceptions by presenting art as a panoply of ordinariness.
Elevating objects like Brillo pads for washing the dishes and canned soup we might eat for lunch, by fashioning them into ‘works of art’, Warhol challenged us all to understand what art is, or is not.
Curated by Max Delany, Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victorias (NGV International) spans the careers of the late American artist and his contemporary admirer.
Wonderfully conceived, curated and displayed, the works by Andy Warhol have become over the passage of time since he passed, integral to modern culture, so much so today he is at the heart of contemporary art tradition.
Although his own ‘pop’ art is now static, those he inspired are expanding his ideas in all new and dynamic directions, reflecting on and responding to the technological age.
Make no mistake the main focus of this show is Andy Warhol’s work, despite Ai Weiwei gaining most of the immediate publicity when the show opened, as is befitting a contemporary artist.
After all he’s a celebrity in our day and in his own right and his work of the moment defines our culture now.
Out of the 300 works on show however, nearly 2/3 some 200 are Warhol’s works, the largest presentation of the artist’s work to ever come to Melbourne.
This in itself is a reason to visit.
Seeing them both together is a luxury that we may never see the like of again; worth jumping on a plane, boat, car, train or tram to experience.
The exhibition brings together a wide range of photography, including more than 500 Polaroids documenting Warhol’s social milieu, alongside music and publishing; and rarely exhibited, and in some cases never-before-seen, photographs and illustrations.
Warhol knew works of art meet many needs, including that of any ‘artist’.
He didn’t want to pay the wages of art or beauty himself, but needed to have a prolific outcome to provide the louche lifestyle he wanted to always enjoy.
Many of Warhol’s most celebrated works are featured including paintings and silkscreens such as Campbell’s Soup, Mao, Elvis, Marilyn, Flowers, Electric Chairs, and self- and celebrity portraits.
Then there is his Skulls and Myths series; early drawings, commercial illustrations from the 1950s, sculpture, and installations are included with such iconic works as Silver Clouds, 1966.
Films he made include Empire, 1964, Blow Job, 1964, Screen Tests, 1965, and the expanded cinema installation Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1966-67, which you can view in especially designed spaces.
The most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century and the man who scandalised the ‘art elite’ of his time, Andy Warhol innovated and fired up the feelings and emotions of others.
He concentrated on graphic works because he knew they would exhibit more than normal significance in a world rapidly being dominated by emerging technologies.
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he said, ” just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it”
While he seemingly broke with all conventions with his methods, Andy Warhol also adhered to some views inherent in the goals of Modernist artists of the late 19th century.
The artists of the DeStijl movement, centred in the Netherlands, were one of many groups working to achieve “honesty” in their artwork, in retrospect a very lofty ideal.
Their perception and notion was that much of the art of the past was dishonest and that most European artwork had been painted to ‘fool’ the viewer’, which interestingly in the modern age Andy Warhol delighted in doing.
Warhol provoked post war children in America, and indeed around the world as they grew to adulthood to examine themselves and their lives from the inside out.
He made them question the status quo; inspired them to take what knowledge they had and expand it to include the whole world.
Above all, he challenged them to seek to know and understand themselves, as did our ancestors in antiquity.
Know thyself is such a powerful concept and Warhol certainly knew himself, or so we are led to believe.
So where does the mystery of Andy Warhol end and the man begin. He was a complex character to be sure.
He certainly had a fascination with Ai Weiwei’s homeland China and this is evident at the NGV International Show.
It began a decade before his visit in 1982, when he was inspired by the then President Richard Nixon’s re-establishment of harmonious diplomatic relations in 1972, to present his portraits of the communist leader who made his people cut grass with scissors.
He dolled him up, a comment on the heroic scale he had built himself up to present his presence to his people, one that did not represent who he truly was and that he ruled over a country of inequalities.
Only there for four days and in the main unrecognised, Warhol visited and admired the Great Wall and was photographed in Tiananmen Square by Christopher Makos his friend, who recorded the visit for posterity.
There is no doubt Warhol would have stood out like a tree on one tree hill with his highly unusual looks amidst a sea of Chinese uniformity at the time. The fact that many people looked ‘the same’ in their blue suits appealed to his aesthetic obsession of repetition.
Fascinated, he adopted the gestures of the people he watched performing Tai Chi, while posing for photographs, also endeavouring to take off a lion guarding the Forbidden City where he also took a photograph of Chairman Mao’s portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
On finding out the people of Beijing hadn’t yet experienced a McDonald’s restaurant, he reputedly said ‘Oh, but they will’.
Recording his impressions in a journal, Warhol’s visit to Beijing only impressed the city’s avant-garde in retrospect, because at the time they were unaware he was there at all.
He most certainly didn’t know such a group had established themselves after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, inspired in part by he and his works and that in 1981 young Chinese artist hopefuls, who were also social activists like Ai Weiwei, would wend their way to New York to be inspired in the future by his lead.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015