Warhol in fresh light

It is not controversial to assert that Andy Warhol is the most instantly recognisable artist of the 20th century’s latter half. This makes the task of putting on an exhibition of his work rather problematic – presenting Warhol in a fresh light is challenging when the man has had so much exposure. An unimaginative exhibition of his work would no doubt still draw crowds, so it is particularly exciting when an exhibition attempts to put together something genuinely fresh, to carve a new-fangled lens through which to view him. Last year, the Barbican did so by displaying (a portion of) his private collection in their delightful exhibition Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector. This year the Ashmolean Museum presents, in public for the first time, over a hundred works from the collection of Andrew and Christine Hall. The collection is predominantly formed of various portraits – of celebrities, naturally, but also of politicians and other artists. It also includes other work, such as some of his Oxidation paintings and an attempt at replicating a Rorschach test, as well as a number of films loaned from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Curated by veteran Norman Rosenthal, the exhibition is brightly lit. Each piece has a number of lights from a variety of angles pointed at it, creating a criss-crossing overlap of shadows. Jonathan Jones suggests that there are shadows everywhere in Warhol’s work, and Rosenthal’s careful curation reflects this notion in the exhibition space itself. Even the final room of the exhibition, dedicated to the artist’s late, often religious, works, is well lit. There is nothing like Milton’s ‘dim religious light’ here: the black and white images are left to sit starkly on the walls of the bright room.

Generally, the rooms represent decade-long periods so that one moves chronologically through Warhol’s career. Contextual information is usefully, but not excessively, provided, and is sometimes even quirky: a highlight is the backstory of a series of portraits of Ethel Scull (1963), which explains how Warhol, armed with hundred dollars’ worth of change, took her to a photobooth and shot image after image after image, before picking the best 36 to use in the commissioned work. The result is a series of images of Scull in a variety of positions and a variety of colourways, which, when placed next to each other, produce a notable sense of movement – as if we are seeing her facial reactions throughout an average day.

A similar effect is enacted by the films included in the exhibition. Two Screen Tests, where people were asked by Warhol to sit and ‘do nothing’ in front of a rolling film camera, are displayed on screens side by side. The focused gazes, combined with the participants’ minute twitches, make for a strangely transfixing (and utterly disarming) experience. A 50-minute excerpt from Empire State, Warhol’s eight hour film of the changing daylight on the eponymous New York skyscraper, is shown on a screen on the perpendicular wall. The juxtaposition leads one to draw parallels between the building and the faces, both standing still in front of the camera but also minutely changing.

This fascination with small changes and movements preoccupy much of the works displayed. Indeed, a quote from Warhol explaining his silkscreening method crops up early on in the exhibition:

With silkscreening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it.

Warhol seems fascinated with the motion created through repetition, with his portraits of Watson Powell (American Man) providing an early illustration of this. Later on, we get a small selection of the hundreds of society portraits produced by the Warhol Factory, displayed in a large grid on a colossal wall. The portraits are often repeated with minor changes in colourways. In the same room hangs Twenty Fuchsia Maos (1979), which takes the official image of the leader disseminated throughout China in The Little Red Book and repeats it again and again in a gaudy colourway. Rosenthal’s note to the piece likens the image to the widely disseminated Coca Cola logo, and highlights Warhol’s transformation of a necessarily static image – a logo, or official portrait – into something changing and mutable.

The final room of the exhibition is, in this respect, unexpected, and more than a little jarring. Devoted to his late work, it is filled with black and white pieces which often focus on religious subjects. Another quote is displayed on the wall:

Black is my favourite colour

and white is my favourite colour

Subtle changes and the resultant movement they create give way to a preoccupation with dichotomies: between black and white, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ (“HEAVEN AND HELL ARE JUST ONE BREATH AWAY!”, reads one late piece). Repetition only occurs in the form of positive and negative versions of the same work, further emphasising a focus on the opposition of these extremes (or lacks) of colour.

Postulating about the purpose or meaning behind Warhol’s work will always present a problem, as the man himself continually refused to share his system of beliefs. Such an ambiguity can, perhaps, be seen as a reflection of Warhol’s diffidence in regards to his own image – he wore a wig from his 20s, narrowed his nose, and had repeated collagen injections in his later years. The self-portraits included in the exhibition are thus remarkable insights into a man of mystery, in that they articulate a desire for control over self-image. None are repeated like his other portraits, but rather each exists as a singular expression of himself. Yet that is not to say that these expressions are lucid or unaffected – rather, they are personas. As such, the resounding feeling upon leaving this exhibition is that we may never quite know what made the man under the wig tick.


Originally published in the Cherwell newspaper, 12 February 2016.

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