Andy Warhol: Glamour at the Edge
Heather James is proud to exhibit a selection of artworks by Andy Warhol from the 1960s to the 1980s as America reached a new apex of glamour and consumption. The preeminent Pop artist, Warhol was known as much for his portraits and consumer products. The exhibition dives into Warhol’s irreverent world to peel away the layers of meaning that created his vision of American society. Each works entices with their beautiful allure while being deep commentaries on fame, capitalism, death, culture, society, and politics.
The central focus of the exhibition are the screen prints which have done the most to solidify Warhol’s standing as one of the most prominent American and Pop Art artists. Before becoming an artist, Warhol worked as a very successful graphic designer. This background helped Warhol to create works that commented on mass consumption via mass production. In fact, his means of creating the works mirrored the mass production, turning out works at volume. Called The Factory, it was also a gathering place for a mix of people – celebrities, intellectuals, art patrons – anyone who wanted to see and be seen.
The screen prints cover three decades of Warhol’s career from his iconic 1960s Campbell’s soup cans to the celebrities of the 1970s to his most prolific series in the 1980s. At the time of their production, these screen prints were an affordable way for people to own artwork. Prints, whether a Duhrer print of the 1500s or a Hogarth of the 1700s or even a contemporary piece, were a way to produce works for the common people and to disseminate pieces more readily. Warhol amps this up the nth degree to create pieces that are at once disposable and enduring, mirroring the expendable nature of consumer items and consumer culture of the time.
Yet, there is always a sense of irony. Despite the seemingly factory-made nature of the screen prints, they required a great deal of labor. Warhol chose the image, the cropping of it, and the colors while his assistants had to then create the screens for the prints and the execution of those prints. Although still an easy means of producing and reproducing, there is always a hidden cost. Perhaps the most archetypical example of Warhol’s irony are the soup cans. A simple pantry staple becomes fine art; an item that feeds the body transforms into an item that feeds the mind.
But this irony can turn dark. For someone so associated with the sparkle of city life and culture, animals and nature were important to Warhol. Warhol drew animals in his science class as a child and he found inspiration in parks and conservatories while flowers show up many times in Warhol’s oeuvre. Commissioned in the 1980s by Ronald and Frayda Feldman following conversations with the artist over ecological issues, this series depicts animals on the brink of extinction. In this series is a tension of art, commerce, and nature. These animals almost disappeared because of humans, but in a rare showing of hope, many of these animals have rebounded.
On the lighter end of Warhol’s observations of America and consumption, the exhibition presents his “Shoes with Diamond Dust”. Shoes can symbolize both luxury, glamour, sensuality, and frivolity. Think of Cinderella’s glass slipper or 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 thus are subject to bearing the weight of diverse meanings. The added layer of diamond dust in these works emphasizes all of these qualities, yet Warhol’s eye casts an equivocal pall. We are left to wonder how we should interpret these works. For more about these shoes, visit our virtual exhibition “Andy Warhol Polaroids” which contains the photographs that Warhol often 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 Electric Chairs represent Warhol at his most pointed. As he often did throughout his career, Warhol turned to the Electric Chair as a subject first as paintings in 1964 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, the Electric Chair is a high-wire act of art. On the one hand, the works are a confection of color which 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. Warhol seems to suggest a particularly American fascination and perhaps uneasy obsession. The bright but unnatural colors and subject matter disquiet the viewer, making us both outside observers and complicit participants.
It is not just the subject matter that made Warhol a pioneering artist but his process. As demonstrated in the Electric Chair suite, Warhol often pulled from press images upending the media’s ability to inform to reveal the underlying current of voyeurism and sensationalism. We are left to ask ourselves not only how we consume things like a can of soup but also how we consume and understand visual media, even something as innocuous as a news image.
“The Shadow (from Myths)” is both a frank self-portrait and a metaphorical one. Imagining himself as the 1930s radio crime-fighter, Warhol confronts the mythologizing of America’s past. Glory and shadow mingle in an uncertain dance.
In looking at Warhol, many miss or undervalue the importance of portraiture. He once referred to himself as “just a travelling society painter”. On the one hand, Warhol referred to the long tradition of artists who travelled throughout the U.S. painting portraits quickly for patrons. On the other, Warhol cheekily attaches himself to the great society portraitists that include Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, and John Singer Sargent. The exhibition touches on this aspect with the inclusion of portraits of Muhammed Ali and Mick Jagger. Jagger was a friend of Warhol, and they collaborated many times over their careers. In both suites, Warhol captures the celebrity and symbolism of both men. In a departure from earlier works, he incorporated colorful geometric shapes, giving more depth and expression. These pieces were based on Polaroids that Warhol took. Polaroids played an important role in Warhol’s artistic process and in his life. Learn more in our exhibition “Andy Warhol Polaroids: Wicked Wonders”.
The last 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 the pin his entire oeuvre. Nixon and Mao not only represent two international superpowers but also how each crafted, or failed to craft, their image. One thinks of the momentous occasion that President Nixon visited China, easing relations between the two nations. Statecraft of the highest order, 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. The implications of this are numerous with one subtle meaning as a reference to the 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the first to be televised. Nixon infamously came across as un-telegenic. Looks and image-making suddenly took on a new level of importance in politics.
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. As his friend Jagger noted in tribute to Warhol at his death, “The thing that he seemed to be able to do was to capture society, whatever part of it he wanted to portray, pretty accurately. That’s one of the things artists do, is show people later on what it was like.”
“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