By ANDREA BELL, August 2018
From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media, opening at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, is an immersive exhibition that juxtaposes Andy Warhol’s most iconic celebrity portraits with a new body of work by contemporary Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom. The exhibition is timed to coincide with the Whitney’s upcoming Warhol retrospective Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, named for the artist’s playfully subversive autobiography. Both artists examine the construction of modern celebrity from two sides of a fundamental chasm between the analogue and digital worlds. Warhol explored the spectacle of twentieth-century High Modernism, while Wahlstrom responds to the dawn of the ubiquitous, mobile internet in the present day.
The exhibition was conceived by Paco Barragán, who approached Wahlstrom to produce a body of work in response to the Whitney’s upcoming show. Both wanted to bring the familiar narratives about Warhol up to the contemporary moment by putting his work into conversation with a current perspective. Barragán has fittingly memorialized Warhol’s iconic portraits. They are hung on one end of the gallery wall, as though in a traditional museum. Only the white cube has been painted shock pink. In describing Warhol’s portraits as “iconic,” I mean to evoke their character as frontal and static, a symbol of a person, rather than a representation. Take Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, sourced from the last publicity photo before her tragic death. Portraits like these are about the images that circulate celebrity. Images whose reproducibility go far beyond the singular self, which they eventually replace altogether.
Through his self-conscious production of his own celebrity, Warhol responded to the mass commodification of the culture industry, a system about which famed French theorist Guy Debord, wrote in his famous The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord argued that modern Western culture had become commodified and saleable through an industry that cannibalized reality, transformed it, packaged it, and sold it as the capitalist spectacle then belched out from the centers of commercial production. Ominously, for Debord, the spectacle unified an increasingly alienated population made up of passive consumers of the culture economy. Although Debord and Warhol are far from one another in artistic practice, they wrestled with similar concerns about celebrity and consumption. Debord was concerned with the production of the spectacle as a system, and Warhol with the image of celebrity produced by that system.
What dates Debord’s spectacle in today’s age of the mobile internet is his characterization of media as a one-way mode of transmission and its audience as merely passive spectators. The revolutionary turn from mass media as spectacle to the mobile internet as ubiquitous simulation separates Warhol from Wahlstrom - with the boundary between “real” and “virtual” life becoming ever more porous since Warhol interrogated celebrity in the 1960s. In response to the early tremors of this turn, Jean Baudrillard published his Simulacra and Simulation in 1981. Baudrillard leaves behind the idea of a monolithic spectacle as distinct from “real” life. Instead he introduces the idea of a simulated reality made entirely of appearances, one that that has fully infiltrated lived reality. For both Warhol and Debord the distance was great between the authentic self and the image produced by and for the celebrity machine. But for Baudrillard, there was no longer any meaningful distinction.
Wahlstrom falls closer to Baudrillard. Unlike Warhol, Wahlstrom is not focused on the images produced by the spectacle, in other words the selfies per se. Instead he captures the new, permeable boundary between “real” and virtual life. Wahlstrom himself bemoans the loss of “real relationships” as face-to-face communication is increasingly supplanted by a social life enacted on-line. But his black and white paintings, which evoke both film negatives and the handmade screen-print of Pop Art, assume no such separation. Instead they freeze moments when digital and analog reality intersect. These can be understood as generative or as impoverished moments, but they owe their very existence to the screen. Asking a celebrity or a politician for a selfie constructs a fleeting, physical relationship based on the performance of happiness and ease. The interaction exists precisely in order to be recorded, posted, and circulated in a hyper-real, simulated reality, no longer distinct from our experience of the “real” world. In many of Wahlstrom’s pictures, the spontaneity characteristic of casual picture-taking leads to humorous juxtapositions. As when a group of six friends tries to pose with Jeff Koons, with most getting pushed outside of the selfie frame, or when a young girl poses for a selfie with Putin, her carefree abandon in jarring contrast to his steely self-control.
The relative importance of the image has also changed. The Warhol portraits included in the exhibition are iconic representations of celebrities, both singular and repeatable; Warhol focused on one image of Marilyn, or of Mao, or of Mick Jagger repeated over and over in different color variations. But reproducible images, especially photographs, are no longer valuable because they are singular and rare, but because they are common and ubiquitous. The contemporary self is constructed by a stream of many different photos, not by the repetition of a single, iconic image. Trump uses social media to stay present in the national consciousness through an accumulation of absurdities, rather than by presenting a unified, rational self-image.
When installing Wahlstrom’s paintings, Barragán sought to reproduce the sensation of being immersed in a stream of images. To that end, he looked to Herbert Beyer’s Field of Vision, which the Bauhaus architect and designer mapped in several diagrams in 1935. Beyer’s idea was an immersive environment of artworks hung on all six walls of a cubic room – including floor and ceiling. Single-point perspective would be exploded into the three-dimensional as all of the artwork could be taken in at a glance from the viewer’s privileged place in the center. Some 80 years later, Barragán’s stream evokes the primary way that images are consumed on social media sites from Tumblr, to Instagram, to Twitter. Mirrors are intermixed with the paintings, conjuring the mise en abyme of one mirror or screen facing another. The mirrors encourage selfies, of course, and set up moments of visual play specifically designed to be captured for circulation in the image stream. WM
From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media will be on view at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts until September 29th, with an opening reception on September 6th at 6:00 pm.
Andrea Bell is an art historian, critic and writer. She received her PhD from NYU and has held fellowships in both Europe and the United States, including at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Drawing Institute. Based in New York City, Andrea teaches Art History and Criticism at Parsons School of Design
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