LONDON — This all started with the briefest of brief conversations, you must understand. I was staring and staring at a stack of Brillo Pad boxes that were commanding a corner slot in Gallery Three when a man I knew from the BBC came over and said to me: isn’t this impressive! No, I replied, it’s completely fatuous because Warhol is always fatuous.
He smiled at me with some sympathy as if I were profoundly afflicted in some way, or had never ever enjoyed the idea of youthfulness. Not way back then. And certainly not now. Impressively fatuous or fatuously impressive? That quick-witted reply of his stayed with me, though I can’t say that it made me feel any happier as I trudged around the rest of this giant cradle-to-grave, from-Warhola-to-Warhol Warholfest at Tate Modern.
Why fatuous for heaven’s sake, you old misery? I heard myself asking myself. Loosen up. Don’t be so stupid.
Now you just listen to me, I replied. Warhol’s the problem, not me. He’s the skin-deep one, the throwaway one, the very epitome of superficiality.
He is so tiresome, so self-indulgent, so full to bursting with nonstop me-me-me-ism. He’s the one who loafs around asking everyone but himself what he should do next, I say, raising my voice a little, and then doing it as fast as possible before he forgets. The man makes you want to scream!
He is also the one who is always with us because, somehow, we have all been persuaded that we need to know more about him: who he was, and when exactly he became the person that he was… perhaps because of the mere look of him, the frail epitome of a pallid, slightly collapsed vulnerability, tricked out in one or another of those ridiculous wigs.
This is all slightly depressing, of course, the fact that we can’t seem to get rid of the Warhol itch. He’s a bit like a bad mnemonic, those verbal devices – often silly jingles – that help you to remember things, and then refuse to go away forever after. Whoever said that memorable things positively deserve to be remembered? Only lovers of good poetry is the answer.
Remember drinka pinta milka day from the 1950s? I do, and it’s been swimming around my head, round and round and round, for more than half a century. I thought it was ridiculous then, and I still think so now, but it sticks there, like glue.
Yes, Warhol’s a bit like that, you know. Once you’ve seen a Warhol on a wall, you are unlikely ever to forget it. Elvis, gun unholstered, pointing straight at you, several times over. Tragic Marilyn, full-face, many times over. The electric chair, many times over. Green Coke bottles all in a row, many times over. Stacked Brillo Pad Boxes, heaped one upon another. Jackie Kennedy, same face all in a line, from smiling to grief-struck, because her husband has just passed from life into death.
Warhol didn’t need to do much, but it was memorable for the fact that he did it at all, and that he did it when he did it. Is that really enough though? Surely not! Are we judging him kindly then because we love the very idea of him? But what about those other reasons too, ones that are said to be more serious?
Wasn’t he some kind of perfect example of what an American artist might be? Didn’t he offer up a dazzling critique of consumerism? Didn’t he bring art down from its pedestal by showing us that art was nothing but everyday stuff after all? Wasn’t he a brave gay when it was tough being a brave gay?
None of this has anything to do with quality, of course, not necessarily. But who cares about quality when perhaps all that you need to do in order to be judged as really significant is to embody the zeitgeist?
By the time I’ve reached this point in the argument with myself, I’m in Gallery Five, and trying to fight my way across and through lots of silver balloons full of helium, shaped like pillows, that seem to be forever coming at me. Every time I begin to read a wall text to see where I’ve got to, another silver balloon drifts down from the ceiling and hits me in the face for showing such over-serious impertinence in the presence of so much fun.
So I blunder through and into the next gallery, which is dark and square and silver, and noisy with Velvet Underground rock, and onto whose walls films of the young and the svelte and the glamorous are being projected. It’s The Factory! I’ve arrived at some kind of mock-up of The Factory, and Andy’s here too, of course, posing and pouting and lounging and drifting with all the rest. Everybody is Art by now in Andy’s world. Better still, not even the minimum of art effort is required any more to make it so. You just have to bask in your own desirability as an image winningly reflected back at yourself.
Then something really bad happens that almost brings the Hey Warhola-to-Warhol Circus to a screeching halt. Andy gets shot. A feminist called Valerie Solanas walks in and shoots a bullet into him. What’s her grievance? “He controlled my life,” she told the police, according to the New York Daily News of June 4, 1968. He was also the embodiment of Capitalism. He may even have been a man. He had also allegedly mislaid a play script she’d handed over to him called Up Your Ass.
Nothing is ever quite the same again. He locks his door. He feels anxious. Fifteen months later Richard Avedon takes a picture of his torso and stomach, showing off the wounds. Andy says later that the stitches on his chest remind him of an Yves Saint Laurent dress. So a bit of him is back.
Then comes Mao. Who is the most famous person in the world? he asks his dealer. Mao. So he does Mao with cherry-red lips, and Mao wallpaper too, with a purple head. Same technique — a screen print with a few added daubs. By now he’s published books with mainstream publishers too – Andy’s philosophy of life, that sort of thing. Then he gets his own TV show. No, two TV shows.
The last room (very dark) is end-of-life stuff: he turns Leonardo’s Last Supper – “it’s something you see all the time. You don’t think about it” – into a rectangular grid of 16 identical images, each one as grainy as all the rest, and projects it onto a wall. Yes, it looks a bit like one of those wall graves in an Italian cemetery. Is this Andy’s religious phase or what? A snatch from the wall text may help a bit: “the repetition of a collective activity between men adds to the work’s symbolism.” Andy would have skipped out of the sea and become a disciple like a shot, I kid you not.
Andy Warhol, 1928–1987 continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through September 6. The exhibition is organized by Tate Modern and Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and Dallas Museum of Art.
Pleased be advised that Tate Modern is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic until May 1 at the earliest; check the museum’s website for further announcements.