andy warhol @ wag
published: outwords inc., issue #146, november 2007
tagline: from soup to pop.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, Andy Warhol became one of the most innovative and controversial North American artists of the twentieth century. Famous as much for his provocative lifestyle as for his groundbreaking art, Warhol's body of work remains relevant to this day. Many of those works are now on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery's feature fall exhibition, Warhol: Larger than Life. Showcasing over 150 pieces, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and films, the exhibit reveals how a relatively unknown Pittsburgh arts student named Andrew Warhola grew up to be the iconic Andy Warhol.
Warhol relocated to the burgeoning arts centre of New York City only a week after he graduated college from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1945. A little more than a decade later, he became one of city's top commercial artists, designing ads for magazines like Glamour, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Transitioning into fine art in the 1960s, Warhol achieved international fame and recognition as a major Pop Art artist, and by his death in 1987 he had produced a diverse wealth of art.
The drawings and photographs on display at the WAG provide a more fascinating side of Warhol than his famous silk-screen prints of Campbell's soup cans. In the early 1950s, he drew two ink sketches of a male couple kissing (Male Couple) and of an erect penis covered in flowers (Male Genitals). The images reflect his first acquaintance with New York City's gay scene and, interpreted positively, they reveal the beauty and excitement that emanate from new sexual possibilities. Warhol continued to explore the theme of homosexuality in his 1960s film productions Blow Job, My Hustler, and Lonesome Cowboys.
Also on display is a substantial collection of self-portraits Warhol created during the same period in time. His fascination with his self-image, and his subsequent distance from it, is an intriguing element contributing to his character's mystique. In a select set of drawings, paintings, Polaroid's, and enlarged screen prints, each image reveals a different aspect of his self.
In the 1980s, with the help of a professional make-up artist, Warhol constructed three different drag personas captured with a camera. In their position within the gallery, viewing each self-portrait becomes an experience within itself. Look closely into the glass frame of one picture, you can see another much different image of Warhol reproduced in its reflection.
A few feet past the colourful and vibrant silk-screen reproductions of Marilyn Monroe are pieces from Warhol's Death and Disaster Series. Produced in the early 1960s, the series features artwork produced from the photos of an ambulance crash, car accident, and police riot; a major contrast to the bright and glittery pop art for which he's famous.
A quote by Andy, one of several painted on one of the gallery walls, reads, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
The surface of Warhol's work is characterized by a mass of contradictions that lie somewhere in the divide between reality and surrealism. One thing is certain; the work and ideas Warhol imprinted on the public conscious are just as relevant now as they were then. Leaving the gallery to pass under the huge banner of Warhol's face, only to board a bus with the same image on its side, one can't help but think that Warhol was, and might still be, ahead of his time.
Warhol: Larger Than Life, as the Winnipeg Art Gallery until January 6. For more information, visit the WAG website at http://www.wag.mb.ca