The ‘Andy Warhol’ exhibition is the final instalment in a year-long programme of exhibitions that began in 2006 to celebrate the opening of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) and to establish its place in the local psyche as a visual cultural hub. Brisbane has been the only Australian destination for this international-blockbuster style exhibition, developed by a Queensland Art Gallery curatorial team in partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
‘Andy Warhol’ has proven to be the perfect means by which the gallery can develop its rapport with the local audience. From the successful ‘Andy Warhol Up Late’ programme, which featured music by local and international artists and a series of ‘15 Minutes of Fame’ short talks by local and international speakers on various aspects of Warhol’s oeuvre; to ‘The Silver Factory: Andy Warhol for Kids’, and its large scale 2007 version of Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966)—an installation of silver helium-filled plastic pillows, that can be viewed or played with, as they float in a glass room; to the presentation of one of the largest surveys of the artist’s film works in GoMA’s Australian Cinémathèque; to the Warhol Supermarket: this exhibition has been designed for the public’s entertainment. And that is without yet considering the exhibition proper. Such activities, as has been suggested by some reviewers, have more in common with an afternoon at an amusement park than a visit to a gallery of art: you can even break your visit with a Warhol-Style high-tea, where one chooses either the ‘Andy’ or ‘Jacky’ menu. However, this exhibition reveals that art is never just entertainment or elucidation; that to successfully engage the twenty-first century viewer, it must be both.
Possibly no single artist better predicted the shift that was to occur in the closing decade of the last century than did Andy Warhol. And that shift, which took the artworld from Modernism in its many guises (including the rogue variant of Postmodernism) to what may now be called the ‘Contemporary’, is echoed in GoMA’s curatorial mode. Despite the fact that he began working as an artist fifty years ago, Warhol’s working methodology heralded a new sensibility in art that is still being fully realised. What exactly this shift has meant for the artworld is highlighted across Brisbane’s cultural precinct, where the juxtaposition of the old and new galleries results in a face-off between their two very different approaches to the role of the visual arts in contemporary culture. The old gallery turns its back on the outside world, and invites the singular contemplation of its collection of unique artworks, particularised, in modernist style, by the white walls on which they hang. Across the courtyard, the transparent skin of GoMA declares its complete and indiscriminate openness to any and all cultural ‘noise’—indeed, the sense of a post-modern cacophony seems to intensify within its parameters. This installation of ‘Andy Warhol’ at GoMA, however, indicates just how radical the paradigm shift to the ‘contemporary’ might be. Here the difference between art and what surrounds it—life, reality, the everyday, the ordinary—has collapsed to the point that one has become indistinguishable from the other. As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard explained it, such art is ‘all in externals’1: like the Pop art of Andy Warhol, contemporary art blurs the boundaries to become at the same time a sign of, and an object for, consumption rather than contemplation.
Following his training in Pittsburgh, Warhol moved to work in New York at a time when high-art was at a point of high-seriousness and under the spell of modernist critic Clement Greenberg. Responding to the climate of degeneration and despair which gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Greenberg had set himself the task of rescuing Western art from its destruction by either kitsch or politics, or both. As the champion of ‘quality’ and progress in art, which he saw epitomised in painting, Greenberg believed that art’s advancement along the modernist trajectory could only be achieved through avant-garde style interventions that reinstated art’s self-interest and detachment from the world. Warhol, the son of immigrants from Europe’s eastern bloc, Catholic, homosexual, and trained as a commercial artist, was in every way an outsider to Greenberg’s muscular ambitions for American art.
However, if, for the best ideological reasons, it was of the Americanisation of the Western world that Greenberg dreamed, it is Warhol’s commodification of art rather than Greenberg’s idealistic and elitist formalism which has colonised world view. And as the public embrace of this show (‘Andy Warhol’ has drawn the biggest crowds in the history of the gallery) and the essays in the exhibition catalogue attest, the effects of that colonisation, and commodification, are still being played out and contested today. The impacts of the Warhol effect can be seen right across the artworld—from photography, to film, to celebrity, to the question of what remains of value in art, to name just a few. Because of its eclectic nature, Warhol’s work cannot be fitted into the art-historical narrative of aesthetic refinement reified by Greenberg. His work operates outside of the systems of meaning and value associated with traditional art-historical discourses. Indeed one of the first questions that occurs to viewers of this exhibition is ‘Is this really art?’
A highly successful illustrator and designer in New York before his foray into the artworld, Warhol was himself unambiguous about what represented value in art: he said ‘Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art’. Nevertheless, Warhol’s apparent lack of critique of his subject matter, and his bland repetition of images lifted from the world about him, still attracts wide-ranging, and often conflicting, interpretation: is Warhol’s Pop art merely a reflection of his obsession with surface—of celebrity and commodity; or is he really drawing attention to the mediated nature of our lives? Such is the nature of the questions which arise from contemporary art, and which, inflected as much by irony as a penchant for post-structuralism, becomes a game of interpretation teased out between the viewer and the artwork. The issue, then, is not what is at stake within the art, but where viewers position themselves in relation to it: is the art what it appears to be, or is it about what it appears to be?
These slippery layers of meaning are evident in all of Warhol’s works, where his reduction of everything to surface—be it soup cans or the electric chair in designer colours—renders it at the same time banal and charged with deep meaning. The ambiguous quality of his work is explored in different ways by the essays in the exhibition catalogue; but particularly by Rex Butler, in ‘Two Warhols’ where he demonstrates that after Warhol aesthetic taste is revealed as merely another consumer choice; and by Douglas Crimp in ‘Getting The Warhol We Deserve’, where he argues for readings that extend our understanding of Warhol’s work beyond that of either surface or social critique, to acknowledge the way that ‘it disdains and defies the coherence and stability of all sexual identity’. The ambiguity and multiplicity of all aspects of human identity, and its constant dance with desire, finds its most exquisite expression in this exhibition in Warhol’s enigmatic self-portraits. In them, we witness the artist’s own serialisation of his transformation from reflective young man in Self-Portrait (1966-67), to a spectral presence haunting his own mask-like visage, which he has encoded as camouflage, in Self-Portrait No. 9 (1986). He died the following year.
In concluding its foundational year with this exhibition, GoMA declares its domain within the fluid and multifaceted realm of the contemporary artworld that was mapped out by Warhol. It has left behind the utopian aspirations of the avant-garde age, with its challenges and resistances, and facilitated Brisbane’s entry into the seamless global environment of the twenty-first century, where consumerism and desire operate among an infinite number of contingencies that precipitate into meaning when the setting is right. Like Warhol, the Gallery of Modern Art has opened itself to the vicissitudes of the contemporary artworld. But then again, perhaps there was no option. Because as Warhol observed:
‘Once you “got” pop you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see the same way again…. We were seeing the future and we knew it for sure. We saw people walking around in it without knowing it, because they were still thinking in the past, in the reference of the past.’
1. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Is Pop an Art of Consumption?’, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Sage, London, 1998, p.115.