Thursday, January 03, 2008

Warhola: Andy Warhol at Brisbane’s GOMA

According to Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), the Andy Warhol exhibition has been a big success with 36,000 people attending since it opened four weeks ago with big queues every day. The exhibition is Australia’s first Warhol retrospective and is exclusive to Brisbane. It is the largest ever loan of works from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and features 300 pieces spanning his career from the 1950s to his death in 1987. Woolly Days joined the queue today to check it out.

Warhol was a great exponent of hype in his lifetime and it was tempting to look at his art in the same light. But that does great disservice to his body of work. Warhol had incredible energy and crammed a great deal into his short 58 years. He was active across many areas of art including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, films, videos and installations. The GOMA exhibition celebrates all this with his cow wallpaper thrown in for good measure. Warhol’s understanding of mass culture, semiotics, and the power of the media is brought out brilliantly in this retrospective. His Pop Art celebrates the age of mass production in an unsettling fashion. Warhol’s work was the epitome of postmodernism.

The exhibition is organised chronologically in the main, beginning with his early commercial illustrations which include his extraordinary shoe drawings. It then moves on through his silkscreen works of the 1960s (with his trademark soup cans). We see his wonderful celebrity portraits including Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis. These are part of his decidedly dark “Death and Disaster” series with its forensic examination of car crashes. The cropped images are taken out of a journalistic framework and placed repeatedly into the context Warhol wants for them.

Warhol’s work took some time to recover from the 1968 assassination attempt. The exhibition features his famous paintings of Mao Zedong with their rich overtones of the similarities between consumerism and communism (Warhol was also attracted to Mao’s personality cult). The contrast is also obvious between the iconography and commercialism in the religious pieces such as his Last Supper (his final painting in 1986).

Perhaps the most interesting work in the entire exhibition is the later semiological pieces including the dollar signs, crosses and the hammer and sickle series. Nevertheless the most popular items were his time capsules, thirty years of compulsive and compelling daily hoarding which presented fascinating insights to the man and his times.

Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 6 August 1928. His Byzantine Christian parents Ondrej and Julia were ethnic Rusyns (Ruthenians) from Slovakia who emigrated to work in the mines in Pennsylvania. Aged 8 young Warhola was struck down with chorea (St Vitus Dance) a neurological disorder which led to blotchiness in skin pigmentation. He was a loner and a bedridden child who drew in bed and collected pictures of his favourite movie stars. Warhola studied commercial art at the School of Fine Arts at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and then moved to New York in 1949.

His first job was as a commercial illustrator in which he was very successful. He did shoe ad jobs for I. Miller in a stylish blotty line. He also worked as an illustrator for several magazines including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker. By the end of the fifties, he was one of the most sought after designers in New York. During this period he dropped off the final ‘a’ from his name to become Warhol.

He first exhibited in an art gallery in 1962, when the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles showed his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, 1961-62. Fascinated by mass production, Warhol tried to duplicate it in his art. In 1963 Warhol founded a studio at East 47th St known as “The Silver Factory” where he employed a cast of fashionable young people to help him work and play.

After Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, Warhol became infatuated by her and drew hundreds of drawings on the subject. During this period, he became associated with the movement known as Pop Art. Pop Art emerged in Britain and the US in the 1950s; its name derived from "popular mass culture". Some critics hated Warhol's open embrace of market culture. But Warhol didn’t care. As he became more successful, he branched out into other art forms, and became a key figure in New York’s underground art and cinema scene. He also brought Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground to world attention.

In 1968, Valerie Solanas, founder and sole member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) walked into the Factory, and shot Warhol. Earlier that day, Solanas had been turned away from the Factory after asking for the return of a misplaced script she had given to Warhol. The attack was nearly fatal and Warhol was in surgery for five hours. The attack profoundly impacted his work.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Warhol began publishing Interview magazine and renewed his focus on painting. Works created in this decade include Maos, Skulls, Hammer and Sickles, Torsos and Shadows and many commissioned portraits. By the end of the decade he was firmly established as a major 20th-century artist and international celebrity, and exhibited his work extensively in museums and galleries around the world.

In the 1980s, he created two cable television shows, "Andy Warhol's TV" and "Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes" for MTV in 1986. His paintings in this era include The Last Suppers, Rorschachs and, in a return to his Pop Art theme, a series called Ads. Warhol was admitted to hospital for routine gall bladder surgery but he died from complications a day later on 22 February, 1987. He was buried in Pittsburgh, and more than 2,000 people attended a memorial mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York organised by his friends and associates. The Andy Warhol Museum was opened in Pittsburgh in 1994. It is the largest American art museum dedicated to a single artist, holding more than 12,000 works by the artist himself.

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