He’ll be our mirror

Nell Gardiner reviews the new Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery

Standing on the corner, seeing the inviting pink posters around Dublin, I was lured into a trap of Brillo soap boxes and Marylin prints. Was Three Times Out a cheap marketing game or genuinely worthwhile? Warhol originally worked in advertising and the commercial nature of his artwork can be taken as a pretty nullifying experience. Although he was a leading figure in not only the Pop Art movement but the 60s, his work is not as easy to engage with compared to the more emotive viewing experiences of the previous decade’s Abstract Expressionist artists (i.e.Mark Rothko.) However, his art becomes far more engaging when read with an understanding of the 60s, interpreting the icons and problems of his time.

“He recognised the inherent narcissism of the world he lived in and yet actively contributed to it”

The exhibition itself is clever in its layout. The first room full of silver helium balloons (“Silver Clouds”) encourages a tactile experience, immediately engaging the viewer physically if not emotionally with the exhibition. “Silver Clouds” also introduces Warhol as the multifaceted artist he is, and although he is better known for his silk screen prints, the diversity of his material is something that stands out throughout the exhibition. His use of silver is also a thread that runs throughout much of the exhibition. Warhol saw silver as associated with narcissism and was so attached to the sheen that he painted his apartment and artistic hub, “The Silver Factory”, completely silver (as the name suggests). This choice is interesting as it suggests that he recognised the inherent narcissism of the world he lived in and yet actively contributed to it. This simultaneous criticism and participation in the problems of his time is something that crops again and again. 

The exhibition also underscores the associations between death and celebrity apparent during the 60s. The pistol is a motif used in his early sketches included in the exhibition right into the 1980s with his “Gun”, imposing an impression on a large scale alongside his “Jackie” Kennedy prints and “Electric Chair”, all belying an anxiety about the politics surrounding death in his time. Warhol’s own life too was infiltrated with death and drug use. His factory was not only a hub of creativity but of speed users, leading to the premature deaths of many friends. However, Warhol records the drug problems of his friends without involving himself, using their problems  for his art. Similarly, his own near-death experience by a rogue shooter helped to further shape his mystique. Warhol’s art again appears hypocritical in that it seemingly criticises society’s commercialisation of death, yet profits from his friends’ self-destructive habits.

“The silence of his subject paired with the black and white film calls to mind the turmoil behind a glamorous façade”

Warhol’s general obsession with fame in the 60s, and the price that comes with it, is also brought to the light by the exhibition. “Screen Tests” in the final room focuses on celebrities’ faces (he asked them to stay still for four minutes and stare at the camera). Particularly striking is the weeping face of one subject, brought to tears, apparently, by the act of staring unblinkingly. Although this reaction is natural, the silence of his subject paired with the black and white film calls to mind the turmoil behind a glamorous façade. The architectural space of the gallery also centralises the face as a final image of the exhibition, leaving us with a reminder of the darker side of the 60s. Additionally, the weeping face highlights the lengths that celebrities would go to gain their fifteen minutes of fame and how Warhol capitalised on this darkness to further his artistic output, saying that he could put anyone on the cover of his magazine Interview. His attitude to fame, as a critic and shaper of celebrities, is difficult to pin down, but the ability of his art to democratise elitist hierarchies of who knew who appears as a freeing concept.

Collaboration was crucial for Warhol’s art. Both Warhol and Francis Bacon (featured in the exhibition) were said to have admired one another’s work and both dealt with themes of death and performance. Warhol also collaborated with original “It Girl” Edie Sedgwick:  they dressed up as one another and sat in interviews together as a double act. This collaboration enhanced their mystery and shaped  the fashion and artistic trends of the time. Warhol posed the question: “What is a friend? Somebody you know? Somebody you talk to for some reason over a period of time, or what?” This distanced attitude towards friendship paired with an understanding of collaborative benefits of his art demonstrates how Warhol was able to influence so many artists and vice versa. During the 60s, it was the fluidity of artistic cooperation and friendship that fuelled the development of diverse personas.

“Warhol functions as an archival treasure trove of the modernity that flourished in his decades”

Warhol mastered the art of business and attracting attention. Even now, we are still obsessed with celebrity and transactional friendships. He is also unique in the way he distances himself from his art, meaning we can get a better grasp of the atmosphere of the 60s without any of his emotion clouding our perception. In this way, Warhol functions as an archival treasure trove of the modernity that flourished in his decades. The knowledge that the exhibit features some of the best 60s footage can hopefully help to ease any feelings of painful emptiness generated by one too many a Campbell soup can.