Art I hate Andy Warhol. I loathe him all out of proportion. As a deeply held, foundational personality trait, my hatred of Andy Warhol has been an important part of my life almost as important as my inability to eat fish and to call people “honey”. It’s just always been there, the sense that at a certain point art history ended, expiring in the form of a painted representation of a Campbell soup can, a brand of soup that I dislike intensely no less and Warhol’s conviction that “art should be for everyone” leading to a stream of subsequent art which in trying to satisfy everyone ends up impressing no one and which also devalues existing art because of the prevailing attitude that it must be accessible. Oh really, must it?
There’s a frustration to standing in an art space filled with iconic, apparently important pieces of art not feeling anything positive but that’s what happened today at the press view for Tate Liverpool’s Transmitting Andy Warhol, whose first room, "Expanded Painting", contains all the work which crowds will be flocking to see but which makes me seethe. Oh it’s the Brillo boxes. Oh it’s those soup cans. Oh it’s the dayglo Monroe screenprints. Oh it’s the, well, you get the idea. It’s everything I hate about Andy Warhol within a single art space, have loathed across the years, as I say, all out of proportion. I’m fine with it. As Taylor Swift says, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” and it’s ok sometimes to be one of those.
Except, of course, it’s an irrational, incoherent hatred. Look closely at the earliest of the Monroes in the Marilyn Dyptich from 1962 and you can see that he’s not simply creating identical replicas, brush strokes introducing variations and I like that. His Dance Diagram, a painted reproduction of the foot movements in the Foxtrot just made me want to try it out, which I did, even though it’s ultimately impossible to do without a partner. When creating his Rorschach prints in the 1984 he misunderstood how the original test worked assuming subjects created their own blotches, which led to him creating his own version. That gives him an attractive fallibility.
Which is really the narrative of my approach to this very good exhibition. No matter how much I like to say I hate Andy Warhol, I don’t really. I like the idea of him and I like some of his work and what I probably hate is what’s been done to him in respect to exposure and the effect he had on the art world, plenty of which wasn’t really his fault and was a result instead of the art world’s inability to cope with his subversion. Plus he’s an extremely important marker in how we now approach celebrity and fame, especially at a time when the famous fifteen minutes have become literal, when a figure like Alex from Target bubbles up from nowhere on a Sunday via a Twitter meme only to lose credibility in days when a marketing company falsely takes credit.
So I took Taylor Swift’s other advice, shook it off and really quite enjoyed myself. In the next room is Exploding Plastic Inevitable or EPI, a recreation of a mixed media installation, in which a room is filled with footage from a series of similarly named events Warhol held in Chicago in 1966 featuring The Velvet Underground, projected across every wall amid mirror balls. About twenty-minutes long, it’s like standing inside a dream, as close-ups of Salvador Dali and a Nico are interspersed with performances pieces starring a man in a gimp mask and someone who looks disconcertingly like late era Lennon being hogtied and whipped. Bob Dylan wanders through briefly with his harmonica.
The experience notionally mimics what it’s assumed it must have been like in the Factory and certainly how it appears in some film representations (notably Men in Black 3 of all things) even though you know it was probably boring as sin with all the high and drunk celebrities talking rubbish while having their picture taken. Ironically, EPI will probably work best when the room’s filled with people, perhaps even a college group, folks from the same generation as would have attended the original happenings. Even with the professional press pack, the reflective light of the mirror balls flashing against their faces, pixels from the projectors making them look like products of Andy Warhol’s mind, the imagery was utterly transcendental.
And so I continued and in each successive room found my resolve broken. “Dispersal” is about Warhol in the wider world, through his commercial design products for magazines and for book and album covers, Chigall-like line drawings which show a draftsman with real flair and in the case of his fashion spreads accuracy. His classical and jazz images, providing in a still image what promotional videos still can’t all these years later, are so alluring and so perfectly capturing that moment in time, that I was jotting down titles for future reference (this is what Spotify was designed for, Taylor!). Not The Velvet Undergound and Nico with their banana, of course. I already own a copy of that.
I’m even charitable towards the concept of his novel, a, now, even though in many ways its appalling. A response to Joyce’s Ulysses (art is for everyone remember), it features a transcript of everything Factory stalwart, the actor Ondine says over a twenty-four hour period, poorly transcribed by non-professionals so as to render it entirely unreadable. Sigh. Except, having produced the worst book of all time, he stood behind it, putting poor reviews on the posters and generally taking advantage of his own celebrity to sell a few books, effectively taking the piss out of the kinds publishers for whom the ghost-written celebrity biography is their foundation and the kinds of people who buy them. You have to love that.
The final room is "Transmission" which sees Warhol wrestling with the artistic possibilities of new media, of putting his beliefs into practice. Piles of cathode ray tube televisions presenting recordings of Andy Warhol’s TV, his chatshow and magazine programme which ran in the early eighties. Although there are headphones, most visitors will probably simply glance at the given screens as, people who may or may not be a celebrity are interviewed about their lives. While I was there someone called Jim Fourett from something called Dancetaria was holding forth from a couch about something. Was anything he had to say any more useful or interesting than any of the other anonymous faces which cropped up on the other screens?
The pieces I spent the most time with are a collection of covers from Interview Magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969, this selection spanning from 1979 to the mid-Eighties. By then Warhol had withdrawn from the publication, it seems, only really being an ambassador but this display underscores, as so much of his work does the fleeting nature of celebrity, how some faces Jack Nicholson would go on to become iconic whilst others like Maxwell Caulfield slowly fade. Half of the covers on show don’t have the name of the cover star emblazoned on them and our inability to name them ourselves is very powerful. I spent a good five minutes with someone trying to identify one face. We think its Carole King. Perhaps. Bette Midler?
His film work is largely represented by Empire, the legendary eight hour shot of the Empire State Building, shot in 24 frames, projected in 16. A gallery space is presumably not the best place for this though it’s only rarely been presented in the style of a typical “movie” (the wikipedia has a handy screening history). Within this setting and with the pressures of seeing it within the context of an exhibition, it’s difficult to see the subtle changes in image, as the accompanying text suggests, the drama. Inevitably there is an modern fan-produced sequel available on YouTube, Empire II: The Empire Strikes Back, which is more of the same, with the subtle addition of daylight, of only three hours. See it here.
All of which should illustrate that the problem with deeply held hatreds is that they’re inherently inconsistent. I will eat fish if they’re covered in a batter. I don’t hate Andy Warhol as much as I thought I did. I still hate his screen prints, but as this exhibition demonstrates, his work was so multi-faceted, because he applied himself to so many different media, because he was so clearly talented, it’s impossible to hate everything. It’s also impossible to hate the man too because all he really did was what we should all do which is take advantage of the opportunities presented to him, forever with his fingers crossed behind his back that he wouldn’t get found out, knowing better than anyone just how fleeting celebrity can be.