Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

Accident & Design


Tate Modern

7 February to 1 April 2002

£10 (concessions £8)

ANDY WARHOL’S images have appeared in magazines, on TV, clothes and billboards. Everywhere. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Yet the visual impact of his best work is stunning: fresh colours, great composition and thought-provoking subjects. Tate Modern’s exhibition reveals Warhol as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.

Starting with the earliest drawings from the 1940s and 1950s, it covers a great decade from 1962, when Warhol revolutionised art. Then carries on through the lows and less frequent highs of the later 1970s up to his death in 1987. A warts-and-all approach.

Along the way, Warhol defined modern-day USA, consciously or unconsciously exposing the ambiguities of US society. The amount of material he produced is phenomenal: film, audio, paintings and prints, time capsules, collections, books and interviews. There’s a driven need to get things down. A feeling that time is running out.

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928 to immigrants from Ruthenia, now in the Slovak Republic. It was a working-class family, part of a close-knit Catholic community. Following a free scholarship, he majored in pictorial design in 1949 and moved to New York, his possessions in a paper bag. He became a window dresser, book illustrator and commercial artist, commanding high fees from publications such as Glamour, Vogue and the New York Times.

Warhol took his fascination with mass production methods and applied them to art, even calling his succession of studios, the Factory. He developed innovative techniques. Projecting photographic images onto a silk screen, he traced the outline, added colour and used displaced multiple copies to blur the effect. His breakthroughs made art more accessible to artists, audiences and their interaction.

Warhol’s subjects were quintessentially American. His 32 Campbell’s soup cans depict mass produced fodder for the masses. They are hand-painted, produced shortly before his silkscreen innovations allowed him to mass produce pictures of mass production later in 1962. There are dollar bills and Coca-Cola bottles alongside the icons churned out by the Hollywood machine.

These are the most familiar works, often taken as uncritical reflections of the American Dream. As Warhol said, ‘no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking’. A celebration of Western capitalist democracy!

To understand art it must be put in its historical and social context. That won’t necessarily affect whether we like it or not – that’s down to individual taste – but it can help evaluate its significance. Warhol realised very quickly the nature of the post-war world. This was the beginning of mass media. He seemed to understand the power of the repeated image, the action replay, in a way that few, if any, had done before.

This concept can be taken for granted in the 21st century, a time of interactive TV and almost instantaneous satellite links around the planet. The possibility for anyone to be ‘world famous for fifteen minutes’ has been realised. For someone to have grasped that in the early 1960s, however, is quite astonishing.

But even the pictures of the icons are not clear-cut. Warhol painted Marilyn Monroe after her death on 5 August 1962. Marilyn Diptych has the movie star persona on the left, side-by-side with a scratchy, fading-out monochrome version on the right. It’s a fragile, tragic image.

The Disaster series of 1963 are powerful pictures based on press photographs. Tunafish Disaster is about two women workers who died of food poisoning. In White Disaster I, a car burns in the foreground. A black man hangs from a telegraph pole. It looks like a lynching. According to Tate Modern’s curator, he had been flung from the car and impaled. A man walks past, seemingly unperturbed.

There are car crashes. Is there a more poignant symbol of the US than the automobile? Mass production and freedom. Potentially fatal. A smashed-up ambulance has half-regurgitated a woman’s body, hanging out of the broken window. These are tales of everyday folk. Not the rich and famous usually associated with Warhol.

Race Riot – from a photo of a civil-rights demonstration – shows police attacking black protesters, letting loose their dogs. There’s a room full of pictures of the electric chair. Different sizes and colour combinations. The sign on the wall behind this instrument of judicial death reads, Silence. Blank coloured panels are placed adjacent. Disquieting. The repeated image, often criticised for desensitising reactions to catastrophic events, seems to emphasise and harangue. Of course, throughout, Warhol offers no overt analysis. No explicit comment. Just images.

Still in 1963, Warhol made his first three films, Sleep, Eat, and Blow Job, and moved into the first Factory on East 47th Street. In 1964 he was asked to produce pictures for the New York World Fair. The result is Thirteen Most Wanted Men (a gay pun), large portraits of the FBI’s hit-list. They are considered inappropriate by the organisers. Instead of replacing them, Warhol leaves them, painting over them with silver paint.

Empire is a movie of the Empire State Building shot from an office opposite. As the hours pass, the lighting changes with the time of day and lights go on and off. Edited highlights feature in this exhibition but, as Warhol cautioned, his films were often more interesting to think about than to actually watch. The Factory became infamous, a venue for young artists, drop-outs and admirers, hedonistic. In 1966, Warhol launched the rock group, Velvet Underground, featuring Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico, at a multi-media event.

On 3 June, 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Warhol because she feared he was going to produce a film based on one of her scripts without consulting her. Warhol was pronounced dead but survived after several hours of surgery. Many people say that he never fully recovered from his injuries.

By the mid-1970s Warhol was churning out silkscreens of the rich and famous, earning astronomical amounts of money. He assembled time capsules, storing everyday objects, documents and letters. There are 610 by the time he dies.

There is a loss of focus in some of his later work. But some of the silkscreen portraits are still very striking, his late self-portraits, too. His Shadow pictures (1978) are, as they suggest, paintings of shadows. Repetition gives each a different perspective. A sprinkling of fine diamond dust gives substance to these portrayals of nothing. These, and re-workings of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, all-but round off this comprehensive retrospective.

Warhol died unexpectedly, aged 58, on 22 February 1987 in a New York hospital following a routine gall bladder operation. Ironically, having checked-in as Bob Roberts, he died anonymously and unrecorded.

Warhol was enigmatic, to say the least. Ambiguous. In many ways an outsider, he was the centre of attention for years. He seemed to live life on his own terms, for example, never hiding his homosexuality, when many others did in the 1950s. At the same time, he was a devout Catholic.

Warhol has attracted criticism from the left. He lived through the Vietnam war without making any major statements on the conflict. He made money – his estate was valued at $600 million. He socialised equally with radicals and extreme reactionaries, the Shah of Iran, for instance.

A valuation of the person, however, is different to a valuation of the art. Warhol developed radically new artistic techniques, which have influenced artists the world over. This exhibition shows Warhol as the definitive chronicler of post-war America. He was not overtly political. He was – or at least seemed – detached. He observed. He recorded. Andy Warhol left it up to us to evaluate and feel.


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