Clare Doyle rediscovers Andy Warhol on a rainy afternoon …
Andy Warhol . . . Slovak-American artist . . .
It took a rainy afternoon in a twelfth century Cistercian Abbey for me to discover Andy Warhol (1928-1987) anew, to come to a new appreciation of his work.
The department of the Hautes Pyrenees runs the Abbey of Escaladieu as a tourist site and exhibition space. This was the venue for a show organised recently with the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia.. Andy Warhol’s mother Julia Warhola was born and lived in the nearby town of Miková, close to the Polish border. After the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born, Medzilaborce’s museum has the second largest collection in the world of her son’s works.
The Medzilaborce Museum lent 54 works, as well as a collection of family memorabilia for the exhibition. It was called I am from nowhere. This is a quotation from the man himself, put to ironic use since the narrative of the exhibition is that in fact he was very much from somewhere, and his parents’ ethnic origins had a distinctive influence on his work.
The inclusion in the show of some exquisite Byzantine icons from the Warhols’ region of Slovakia was a light bulb going on for me. I have no idea if the young Andy growing up in Pittsburgh was surrounded by icons or tales of life in the old country, but the possibility made sense of his iconic images, his images of icons. According to the background notes, although not known to many, he was a religious man, so the choice of the Abbey to display the work began to seem less eccentric.
In one of the vaulted corridors a collection of possessions and personal memorabilia was displayed, Andy’s christening gown, his leather jacket, his camera, family photographs, and more puzzlingly, a couple of his bank statements. These objects seemed a little irrelevant at first, but then it seemed that a religious building was the perfect place to display these relics of an artistic life. Our Andy was beginning to take on all the trappings of a saint.
The exhibition included some of the most familiar of Warhol’s works, such as examples from the Campbell’s Soup Can series and many portraits, including the portrait of Lenin: a swirl of red, out of which comes an austere representation of the man, contemplative and powerful. This was one of his later works, and that, along with portraits of Hans Christian Andersen and Goethe, showed a man in his maturity, capturing the subtlety and vulnerability of the human experience.
The Marilyns I found unexpectedly moving. The images are apparently identical but seemed to me alternately vulnerable, vacant, steely, careless, tragic. I’m sure there is an amount of projection that takes place. I found myself having a similar reaction to some of the other works – portraits of people I know nothing about – the power of colour altering perception and engaging the emotions. Warhol’s skill captures those forces, making them work for the viewer.
Flowers from the 70s illustrates this perfectly: simple images, the colour fresh and vivid, so that the picture jumps out at you, cheerful and innocent. There is a delicacy in the way he alters the image, a line here, some shading there, that transforms the impression, deepens the visual impact. The first viewing can seem flat, then ones response changes as his subtle influence takes effect.
The curator’s choices made much of his obsession with death – the pictures of the electric chair, the Last Supper series, and the final haunting self-portrait, his spectral face emerging from a surrounding darkness.
A certain preoccupation with his own mortality is understandable. In 1967 Valerie Solanas, the sole member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), shot him and nearly killed him, subjecting him ever after to frail health. This shocking event was not as publicised as it might have been at the time, since it occurred two days before Robert Kennedy’s murder, the icon and the icon-maker mingling their fates.
The exhibition also included pieces by contemporary Slovakian artists influenced by Warhol – an interesting decision, but distracting. Rather than mix the works in one crowded room, Warhol’s work should have been shown in a separate room. HI work encapsulates so much – globalisation, the industrialisation of art, the banality of celebrity. He predicted many things we now take for granted, even the “fifteen minutes of fame” we now have on internet sites such as YouTube.
Winding away from Escaladieu, the Pyrenees blue in the distance, the oak forests russet and yellow, it struck me that the exhibition’s display of icons and background material provided an unexpected context for his work. But he remains an essentially urban artist. If the man from nowhere was really from anywhere, he was from New York.
© Clare Doyle, December 2010
is a bi-lingual freelance writer and management consultant based in south-west France. She has worked in the diplomatic service and elsewhere, and has lived in London, Brussels, Mexico City and the USA. Now she combines some of her previous experience with an ambition to grow the best tasting tomatoes . . . and then there’s always the novel!
Also by Clare Doyle in London Grip:
17 December 2010