Andy Warhol: Glamour at the Edge
“I just happen to like ordinary things. When I paint them, I don’t try to make them extraordinary. I just try to paint them ordinary-ordinary.” – Andy Warhol
Heather James is proud to present a selection of artworks by Andy Warhol from the 1970s and 1980s, a period when America reached a new peak of glamour and consumption that Warhol so masterfully captured. The preeminent Pop artist, Warhol was equally known for his portraits and his depictions of consumer goods. The exhibition dives into Warhol’s irreverent world and peels away the layers of meaning that composed his vision of American society. Each work entices the audience with its beautiful allure while simultaneously posing deep commentaries on fame, capitalism, death, culture, society, and politics.
At the heart of the exhibition is Warhol’s “Triple Dollar Sign.” Warhol understood and appreciated the intersection of art and commerce. Never compromising on either side, he created works that pandered to a shallower perspective while also thoughtfully reflected on American society. His 1981 series of Dollar Sign paintings dares the audience to conflate money and art while also collapsing fine art and pop culture. The dollar sign surrounds us every day, even more so now in the age of the internet where the click of a button can fulfill our wants and desires. The Dollar Sign paintings are Warhol at his most ironic and sincere.
On the lighter end of Warhol’s observations on American consumption, the exhibition features two versions of his “Shoes with Diamond Dust.” Shoes can symbolize luxury, glamour, sensuality, and frivolity. Think of Cinderella’s glass slipper, Carrie’s Manolo Blahnik from “Sex and the City,” or even the viral video “Shoes” by Liam Kyle Sullivan. Footwear occupies a central focus of consumption and is thus subject to bearing the weight of diverse meanings. The added layer of diamond dust in these works emphasizes all these qualities, yet Warhol’s eye casts an equivocal pall. We are left to wonder how to interpret these works. For a deeper look at these shoes, visit our virtual exhibition “Andy Warhol Polaroids” which contains the photographs Warhol used as a basis for his works including a set of shoes.
If the shoes represent the lighter end of Warhol’s subtle investigations, the set of “Electric Chairs” prints represents Warhol at his most somber. Warhol explored the Electric Chair as a subject for his artworks at many points throughout his career, first in his 1964 paintings and then as a suite of prints in 1971. Part of his “Death and Disaster” series which included car crashes and tainted cans of foods, “Electric Chair” is a high-wire act of art. On the one hand, the works are a confection of color that seduces the viewer into an aesthetically pleasing surface. On the other, the suite depicts a method of capital punishment. Warhol pulled from a press photograph of the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison in 1953 – the same year, place, and even chair where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage. With this imagery, Warhol seems to suggest a particularly American fascination and perhaps uneasy obsession. The bright but unnatural colors and subject matter disquiet the viewer, making the viewer both outside observers and complicit participant.
It was not just the subject matter that made Warhol a pioneering artist but also his process. As demonstrated in the “Electric Chair” suite, Warhol often pulled from press images, upending the media’s ability to inform and revealing an underlying current of voyeurism and sensationalism. We are left to ask ourselves not only how we consume things like a can of soup, or t-shirt depicting a can of soup, but also how do we consume and understand the ideas presented in visual media and news.
“The Shadow (from Myths)” is both a frank self-portrait and a metaphorical one. Glory and shadow mingle in an uncertain dance as Warhol portrays himself as the 1930s radio crime-fighter and in doing so he also confronts the mythologizing of America’s past.
The final two works in the exhibition form an interesting duo examining politics and propaganda, image-making, and ideology. In bringing screen prints of Nixon and Mao together, the exhibition distills Warhol’s process and the ideas of his entire oeuvre. The pairing of Nixon and Mao’s portraits brings into direct contrast the two international superpowers they represented, the to two contrasting ideologies of the governments the led, and also the success, or failure, with which these leaders crafted their own image. One thinks of the momentous occasion when President Nixon visited China, easing relations between the two nations. This was statecraft of the highest order and perfectly aligned with Warhol’s oeuvre, as the actual meeting mattered less than the images created and disseminated from the visit.
Going further, the image of Mao is one that has been broadcast throughout the world, becoming less an image of a man and more of a literal icon. Juxtaposed to this is Nixon’s portrait in which Warhol alters his face into an unsettling visage with tones of greens and blues. While there are numerous implications of Warhol’s treatment of Nixon’s appearance, one of the more subtle meanings comes from a reference to the 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The first Presidential debate to be televised, Nixon infamously came across as un-telegenic and image-making suddenly took on a new level of importance in politics. Once again, Warhol’s choice of imagery examines they ways in which American culture consumes our media.
Glamorous and striking, these works are ambiguous in their meaning. It is this ambiguity that heightens their allure and reminds us that Warhol had more cutting insight into American society, many issues with which we are still grappling to the present day.
“A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off the air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.” – Andy Warhol