There are few cultural figures as ubiquitous and enigmatic as Andy Warhol. His visual lexicon is seemingly boundless, and yet it has proved impossible to agree upon a single representation of the man behind the decade-defining, convention bending art – no two individuals experienced Warhol in the same way, and years after his death, critics and fans still struggle to extract truth from the contradictions. Was he impenetrable with a penchant for encouraging self-destruction in his already fragile superstars, or are we yet again attempting to define the undefinable, to label idiosyncrasies that supersede relational and creative benchmarks? Were Warhol’s celebrity portraits – the dizzying repetitions of the Marilyn diptych, the disorienting depiction of grief in Jackie Frieze – products of objectification or provocative studies of humanity?
These questions are at the core of The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new Warhol retrospective, an all-encompassing experience that takes a biographical approach to curation. On August 5th, I spent several hours traversing the exhibit, and as I was bombarded with manifestations of his life’s work, beginning with primitive line drawings and culminating with electric depictions of the individuals who populated his inner circle, it became clear that Warhol the Man is inseparable from Warhol the Artist. His multiplicities, both literal and figurative, are the reason he becomes more relevant with each passing decade.
There are certain societal icons who only reach the pinnacle of their celebrity after death. Warhol was not only part of this class, but had the ability to identify those inchoate stars: the outwardly radiant, silently despondent humans who would burn brightly and spark out quickly, only to be aggrandized posthumously. Elvis, Marilyn, Edie; these were the secular gods of popular culture in America, and from an early age, when young Andrew Warhol was inflicted with Sydenham Chorea disease and lay in bed reading Hollywood magazines all day, he felt inextricably connected to their universe. Little did he know he would soon become the still center of that universe, creating esoteric art out of widely publicized, mass-marketed celebrities even as he constructed a magnetic persona out of his quotidian upbringing in Pittsburgh. Today, this persona and its iconography – the wiry white wigs, the gleaming silver of the Factory, the kaleidoscopic lens through which he saw the world – could be viewed as a nascent version of personal branding. And yet, while Warhol famously claimed that ‘making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art’, it is likely that his preoccupation with self-representation and legacy runs deeper.
‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’ - Warhol
As you move from room to room in the AGO exhibit, you not only trace the trajectory of Warhol’s artistic development, but also his shifting interiority and reckoning with public image. He is his own greatest artwork, and because of this, he is omnipresent, even when his pieces are mechanical and seemingly emotionless. You can sense him behind the camera in his Screen Tests, a series of silent video portraits capturing Factory regulars, and again just beyond the lens of a photo booth, telling jokes to Ethel Scull as she poses for Ethel Scull 36 Times. He is present, too, in the audacious, finger-painted strokes that make up his portrait of Marsha P. Johnson, an instrumental figure in the Stonewall Riots and one of many subjects in Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen series. Warhol is also physically in attendance: the retrospective begins and ends with photographic representations of the artist, first as a child with his family, and later in his fully developed form, a skull-like, seemingly disembodied head captured only months before his death. In between these bookends, Warhol continually materializes, as if to contextualize the works that make up his oeuvre: Warhol in an early photo-booth self-portrait, Warhol in drag, Warhol vacuuming the floor of an art gallery in a tongue-in-cheek variation on performance art. In Self-Portrait Strangulation, photographed soon after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, he wraps one hand around his neck in a representation of his dalliance with death. These evocations force us to confront the duplicity of Warhol’s identity; was his characterization methodical and commercially driven, or was it an uninhibited rebellion against a society still correcting itself after the inelasticity of the 50s? And could it be both?
Warhol’s paradoxical nature is evident not just in his own self-mythology, but also his portrayal of other human beings. Fascination can easily segue into depersonalization, and the similarities between the many cloned faces of Marilyn Monroe in Marilyn Diptych and the factory-like replications of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans make it easy to view his process as cold. Hovering between exhibit rooms, the sequences of identical, repeating squares can be almost vertiginous – how can you read expressions, interpret body language, focus on the person staring at you from the recesses of time when you don’t know where to look first? Linger for a moment though, and you can often unearth hints of emotion. Warhol uses his diptych to mirror Marilyn’s contradictory public and private identities by juxtaposing a flamboyantly painted canvas with an identical black and white one, demonstrating an oft-overlooked compassion. In Jackie Frieze, he disrupts the chronology of Jackie Kennedy’s descent into widowhood, forcing viewers to overcome their discomfort and attempt to piece together the disparate frames like a puzzle.
Did Warhol have a genuine desire to peel back the facades of these illustrious women, or was he merely interested in Jackie as a secular version of the Virgin Mary, in Marilyn as a victim of celebrity culture? Stories from the Silver Factory, his infamous New York City studio and the focal point of his artistic microcosm, are just as convoluted; some say he could be generous, sensitive, and receptive, while others claim he was cutting, ruthless, and dismissive. Everyone had a story about Warhol because everyone wanted to be as close to him as possible and to retain access for as long as possible. Whether he understood this – whether he fully comprehended the damage he could inflict on his so-called superstars by oscillating between worship and abandonment – is indeterminate.
‘People are so boring when they band together. You have to be alone to develop all the idiosyncrasies that make a person interesting’. - Warhol
Community plays a central role in the AGO’s exhibit; several of Warhol’s sketchbooks lie open to reveal his mother Julia’s looping handwriting, a recreation of his multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable features projections of Salvador Dali and Nico as music from the Velvet Underground flares up around them, a television set plays a loop of Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, an MTV talk show featuring up and coming musicians. Warhol’s legacy is one of connectivity, solidarity for misfits, art produced as a collective. And yet he still insisted that ‘people are so boring when they band together. You have to be alone to develop all the idiosyncrasies that make a person interesting’.
The AGO’s retrospective does not attempt to tease out these contradictions. Instead, it paints Warhol as a dynamic individual whose art is extant and increases in significance over time. In the age of social media and influencer culture, his prediction that ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’, has proved uncannily accurate. His commentary on desensitization to death, represented in his Death and Disaster series, has only become timelier with the gamification of violence and the 24-hour news cycle. And, perhaps most importantly, his desire to simultaneously belong and stand out continues to be startlingly, beautifully, poignantly universal.