September 2008, Andy Warhol, Beneath the Brand


Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986.
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection,
Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Andy Warhol – Beneath the Brand

Gillian Sneed

Over the last few decades the public sphere has been oversaturated with the work of Andy Warhol. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and his iconic screen prints are well-known all over the world. His aesthetic and credos have permeated contemporary visual culture. They are so pervasive in fact, that it’s easy to assume there is nothing left to discover about this ubiquitous artist.

That there is more we can learn about him is the theme behind Andy Warhol: Other Voices Other Rooms, currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. According to the museum’s director, Sherri Goldin, the show aims to “reframe the essence of Warhol’s practice.” Curated by the Cologne-based Eva Meyer-Hermann, in close collaboration with the Berlin-based design team, chezweitz & roseapple, the exhibition assumes a new attitude towards Warhol. We are all familiar with his obsessive fascination with consumer culture, celebrity, and the extremes of high and low culture. But we are not as familiar with his sense of self, a focus of this exhibit. For an artist who so often emphasized “the surface”, Meyer-Hermann’s slant towards his artistic practice and interior life is atypical. Rather than presenting him as a brand, she examines him as a human with feelings and fears, and as an artist with a sophisticated practice.

Divided into three conceptually distinct, but spatially integrated sections – “Cosmos”, “Filmscape”, and “TV-Scape” – the exhibition brings together a vast collection of both his emblematic and lesser-known works. Chezweitz & roseapple emphasize an egalitarian approach to content both in the intermingling of the show’s sections, and in its non-hierarchical modes of display. Such an approach is laudable in that it empowers the viewer – not the art market or the institution – to decide what artworks are important. All the media on display are significant, and whether an item is worth five dollars or five million dollars, each object is equally valued. This is no small feat considering the number of works on view: over 100 films, screen tests, videos, factory diaries, and TV episodes; over 100 paintings, drawings, and screen prints; over 200 photographs, photo booth strips, Polaroid’s, Royaltone photos, and contact sheets; 14 audio tapes; 5 wallpapers; 1 time capsule; 1 Clouds installation; and a motley crew of assorted ephemera such as LPs, magazines, shopping bags, a t-shirt, a shoe, and a postcard.  

The exhibition design is also notable for its departure from the standard white cube. Rather, chezweitz & roseapple confront the museum’s unique Eisenman architecture as the site for scenographic intervention. Their theatrical constructions provide creative spaces of display that are intended to both encourage audience engagement, and echo Warhol’s aesthetic sensibilities. Replete with salon-style picture hanging, vitrine displays of LP sleeves and Interview magazines, Warhol wall-papered partitions, American flag motifs, and a red carpet, the space is a cross between a Hard Rock Café, a political convention, and the Oscars. While usually appealing, this approach sometimes results in an over-crowded installation that actually distracts from the work, as is the case in the first gallery.

Nonetheless, the exhibition is generally engaging and imaginatively installed. The adjacently-installed film loops, in particular, allow audience members to approach viewing the films in their own time and order. Similarly, the close juxtaposition of his films with his 2-D works engenders a resonance between the art-making processes of each. Best of all, the inclusion of so much time-based media encourages a slower viewing pace that allows for total immersion and an extended time to reflect.

Goldin declares it the “most daring and provocative” exhibition on Warhol ever attempted. Yet, “it’s not just about Warhol,” counters Meyer-Hermann, it’s “about us, the audience.” It is from this stance that she frames the work as a reflection of American society. Warhol “declared that everything which we want to know can be seen on the surfaces of him and his works,” she writes in the exhibition catalog. “I thought I had to look behind these surfaces, but realized that what we are looking for is not behind, but in front of them. Warhol’s surfaces reflect the world; his works are about you and me.” Even so, navigating the show’s comprehensive galleries, one realizes that it is his interior surfaces that are also exposed; his work is equally about his own place in the world that he reflects, and ultimately, his own identity.

Andy Warhol, Outer and Inner Space, 1965 16mm film, black and white, sound, 33 minutes in double screen

No where is this more evident than in his profound engagement with the moving image. It is no surprise that a person with such an interest in surface reflections would find a natural affinity with the movie screen or the TV monitor. Like a mirror, Warhol simply captured and reflected back onto us the events around him. What emerges from these works is not so much his sense of voyeurism, but his insatiable curiosity about human behavior. We become acutely aware of his interest in setting up situations in which the “plot” is the process of people and things revealing themselves to the camera.

From a video of John F. Kennedy Jr. as a boy on Montauk Beach, to the filmed “hang-out” sessions with the likes of David Bowie, Liza Minelli, and Debbie Harry, it is his unabashed gaze and lack of judgment that allows us entry into the intimate moments of the people he documented, as well as his own. In some cases, this gaze verges on cruel exploitation. For instance, witnessing the 1965 video of Factory “superstar”, Paul Johnson (AKA Paul “America”), which displays the man’s increasingly unhinged monologue on drug use, is like watching a man drown, and being helpless to stop him. Still, it is clear how such works also reflect on Warhol’s own psychology. It is often said that an artist’s portrait of someone else is actually a portrait of himself. Warhol saw himself in others. He identified with their weaknesses as much as he longed for their beauty and desirability. Ultimately, it seems, he identified with their humanity, and relentlessly sought it out as a mode of understanding his own.

While being behind the camera gave Warhol an objective authority, being in front of it enabled him to construct new identities. Yet, like his subjects, it also exposed his vulnerability. Polaroids such as Self-Portrait in Drag (1980) and Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) (1986) demonstrate how he manipulated his own image. He was able to depict himself as Andy Warhol, the fabulous avant-garde artist in order to obscure what he felt he really was: Andrew Warhola, the unattractive homosexual son of immigrants – in short, an outsider. Beneath the glamour and celebrity, his portraits often reveal a sense of loneliness and disconnectedness.


Andy Warhol Self-Portrait in Drag, 1980 Polaroid, transfer print, 10.8 x 8.6 cm Collection The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh © 2007 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. All rights reserved

In the end, TV was the perfect medium for him because it enabled him to engage with his subjects and audience in ways that he hadn’t before. His early forays into TV such as Vivian’s Girls and Phoney (1973), faux soap operas using non-actors, and his eventual cable programs “Fashion” (1979-1980), “Andy Warhol’s TV” (1980-1983), and “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes” (1985-1987) were the ideal vehicles for self-expression, and served as the seeds of contemporary phenomena like reality TV and You Tube. Other exhibition highlights include the audio pieces from the 50s to the mid 70s that document a range of events including a tape of Edie Sedgwick telling Warhol how to make a film (1965), a recording of “I’ll be your Mirror” by the Velvet Underground (1967), and a recording of a dinner at Trader Vic’s Restaurant with Truman Capote (1975). Such works further our insight into the daily life of Warhol and his range of activities.

Andy Warhol Truman Capote, 1982, 1986 Gelatin silver prints sewn with thread, 69.9 x 54.3 cm

Collection The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh © 2007 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. All rights reserved

The exhibition’s title comes from Truman Capote’s 1948 eponymous coming-of-age novel which tells the story of a homosexual boy’s struggle for identity in the face of a homophobic society. Like Capote’s novel, this exhibition examines the themes of loneliness, love, disappointment, and the perversion of innocence. It exposes Warhol as a more complex figure than we may have realized. According to Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, the young protagonist of Capote’s novel eventually “accepts his destiny, which is to be homosexual, to always hear other voices and live in other rooms.” Perhaps the same could be said of Warhol, who it seems, did finally attain an augmented level of self-confidence in front of the camera in his later TV shows (which were cut short due to his untimely death). Just as Capote’s protagonist was liberated by his own self-acceptance, this exhibition sheds light on the ways Warhol was emancipated by the self discovery and eventual acceptance he attained through his visionary art practice.

Andy Warhol: Other Voices Other Rooms
is on view at The Wexner Center of the Arts, Columbus, Ohio from September 13 – February 15, 2009.

Gillian Sneed

Gillian Sneed is a writer in New York.

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