‘In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,’ Andy Warhol once famously quipped. This statement is strangely prophetic: today’s obsession with fame, and the often fleeting nature of celebrity in a world of gossip magazines, reality TV and YouTube, have indeed fulfilled Warhol’s prediction. However, more interesting is the fact that Warhol not only anticipated all this, but through his work, he became the architect of this new world.
'Coca Cola' 1962
‘For many people Andy Warhol means the Marilyn portrait and the Campbells soup cans,’ considers Ma Li, Assistant Curator at the Power Station of Art, which is hosting the ‘15 Minutes Eternal’ exhibition of Warhol’s works. The largest ever Warhol exhibition to be shown in Asia, it is the summer’s must-see art event in Shanghai. ‘The point of this exhibition is to show the richness and diversity of his oeuvre. A lot of his most famous works, the silver screen prints of celebrities for instance, were done so that he could finance some of his more experimental projects,’ she continues. ‘For me, his less commercial projects are often more interesting, and important.’
The exhibition is hugely ambitious in scope. Organized chronologically, it follows Warhol’s career from his work as a commercial illustrator in 1950s New York, through his revolutionary silver screen prints of the early sixties, and on to his forays into film, fashion, music, television and printed media. However, the most interesting narrative in the exhibition is the transformation of Warhol himself, from awkward, eccentric young man trying to make his way in the Big Apple, to self-styled celebrity and darling of the Pop Art Movement, and finally to the shrewd businessman who infamously proclaimed that ‘Making money is art… and good business is the best art.’ Warhol was a master of reinvention, his expertise in branding and marketing extended beyond his work, to his own persona.
Indeed, it has been said by some that Warhol’s greatest work of art was himself. He courted publicity and harnessed his celebrity in ways no artist has done before or since. For this reason, he is admired and vilified in equal measure, his negation of the artist from the practical aspect of the artistic process leading to him being considered a fraud in some circles. He famously named his studio ‘The Factory’ to emphasise the efficient, mechanical nature of his craft, and often had no hand in the creation of his works beyond the original concept.
'Kitchen' (Video) 1965
‘Warhol remains a complex and often misunderstood persona twenty five years after his death,’ remarks Eric Shiner, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, there is no denying that, like any great artist, Warhol was able to take what he saw around him and transform it into something visionary. What surrounded him in 1960s boom-time New York was the consumer revolution, the proliferation of mass produced goods, glossy commercials and pop culture. His first response to this, his ‘Coca Cola’ series, was a game changer. Warhol was fascinated by the democratising potential of mass culture, the fact that no matter what their social standing, anybody has access to a bottle of coke, and no matter how wealthy someone is, they can never have a better one.
Thus, Warhol prints the image of the coke bottle on canvas, and presents it as art. In doing so he was not merely commenting on mass culture; his works questioned the very idea of what constitutes a work of art. As Arthur Danto once put it, this appropriation of the mass produced commodity as art amounted to a form of transfiguration, forcing the viewer to think about art in a way they had never done before. It took the art world by storm.
Warhol’s ability to upend the order of things was not merely limited to painting. His early films re-evaluate the traditional idea of the portrait. Warhol placed the lens in front of people and challenged them to ‘act normally’. As the minutes tick by, the lens strips back the sitter’s pretence, to reveal their hidden character. ‘These films are really interesting for me’ says Ma Li. ‘Whenever someone appears in front of camera, there is always something quite contrived about it. If someone knows they are being filmed, they project themselves in a certain way. These days, with Facebook, Instagram and all these other things, everyone is branding themselves. Warhol’s film projects anticipate this phenomenon.'
Other highlights of the exhibition include some of Warhol’s early work as an illustrator, where you can see his prodigal talent for branding and marketing develop. The iconic celebrity portraits and soup can series draw the biggest crowds, and are worth a look for their own sake. Works from the haunting ‘Death and Disaster’ series are also here, in which Warhol reflects on the onset of the information age, of 24-hour news, of the society of spectacle where images of death and disaster are unrelentingly transmitted into our consciousness.
Perhaps most interesting of all are the contents of some of Warhol’s ‘Time Capsules’: collections of miscellaneous objects which Warhol had compiled throughout his life. Amazingly, this plethora of material and visual culture on display is just the tip of the iceberg; according to Nicholas Chambers, Curator of the Andy Warhol Museum, there are 612 of these time capsules, containing magazines, photographs, source materials and countless other ephemera, creating a priceless picture of the artists life and times, and giving a unique glimpse of Andy Warhol the person, rather than the abstraction.
'Death and Disaster' 1962
Conspicuous by their absence are Warhol’s iconic Mao portraits, which were considered too risqué to be shown on the mainland. Much has been made of this omission, but when faced with such variety and quality elsewhere in this exhibition, it seems quite pedantic to complain that such an obvious call was made.
"Whenever someone appears in front of camera, there is always something quite contrived about it. If someone knows they are being filmed, they project themselves in a certain way. These days, with Facebook, Instagram and all these other things, everyone is branding themselves. Warhol’s film projects anticipate this phenomenon."
‘For me, Warhol is the most important artist of the twentieth century, perhaps in the entire history of art,’ Ma Li declares. ‘In the twentieth century, only Warhol and Duchamp were able to completely change the rules in terms of our perception of art.’ It is a somewhat depressing thought that half a century after his soup cans caused a scandal in the New York art scene, contemporary art still exists very much in Warhol’s shadow. No artist since has been able to decisively move beyond the themes and ideas that he explored.
"Making money is art...and good business is the best art." Andy Warhol
The importance of Warhol’s work is not limited to art. His ‘Interview’ magazine was hugely influential in the realm of fashion and media, whilst his musical projects, notably his management of the Velvet Underground and influence on David Bowie, were instrumental in the creation of the pop star as a persona, rather than purely a musician. So for better or worse, modern music also owes him a significant debt.
It is clear by the success of this exhibition that Warhol remains a hugely popular figure. Perhaps more importantly, with the forces of capitalism, consumerism, mass culture and social media moving through China at break-neck speed, Warhol’s works have more to say to the people of Shanghai now than they ever have before.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
PICTURES COURTESY OF POWERSTATION OF ART