More than 100 works by iconic Pop Artist Andy Warhol are on show in a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool - reviewed by Mike Quille
All the usual suspects are there in the current Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Liverpool.
Silkscreened prints of tinned Campbell’s soup. Repetitive images of celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Liz Taylor and Mao Zedong. Boxes of Brillo pads looking exactly like… boxes of Brillo pads.
What’s to like about this kind of art? Isn’t it just more of the same commercialised, brash and shallow US culture which has been trying for years to smother the world with aggressively marketed and vacuous art, film and TV?
There is a kind of nihilism and emptiness in Warhol’s artistic practice, an absence of clear moral or political engagement which can seem dangerously facile and irksome. Why would we want to go to an art gallery and look at images of tinned soup? And what’s the point of endlessly reproduced images of hyped-up media celebrities?
Yet there are quite a few progressive political meanings discernible in Warhol’s themes and artistic practice. The famous cans of soup at first sight may look like Warhol expressing and uncritically endorsing the commodifying and fetishising of products so typical of capitalist society.
But these images represent a pure and forceful depiction of the alienation of an artist who has seemingly disappeared from the artwork, leaving no trace of craft, skill, emotion or thought, apart from a cold-blooded rejection of the whole still-life tradition.
They represent too the alienation of the product, which is reduced to a procession of brightly labelled tins, a striking contrast with the rich and expressive painterly images of food and drink by a Caravaggio or a Cezanne. And they reflect too the alienation of the viewer, for these ordered and over-controlled images surely mirror ourselves, regimented workers in capitalist production and reproduction processes in factory, office, supermarket and the home.
These and so many of the other artworks in the exhibition are as deliberately engineered as the Dadaist and Surrealist challenges earlier in the 20th century, subverting the existing hierarchies of art, much as Duchamp’s urinal did when it was placed in an art gallery.
There is also a democratising strategy behind the artworks. “Art should be for everyone,” said Warhol, and this egalitarian impulse is made manifest in several ways. It’s there in the choice of subject matter. There are no abstract puzzles or hidden, elitist meanings in the photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights protesters in Alabama, the energetic images of Elvis, the imaginative designs for LP covers or the eloquent and chilling paintings of the electric chair used in the execution of the Rosenbergs.
And the iconic representation of mundane objects like cans of soup shows an aesthetic egalitarianism which implies and supports a political commitment to equality.
It’s also there in Warhol’s commitment to the mass reception of his art and engagement with images familiar to the working class in the US. Warhol claimed in the early 1960s that his art was fundamentally communist and the multiplied images of Monroe and other popular cultural images, iconic reflections of socially created images, do indeed assume and propose a creative and communist humanity. “Do it yourself” is the clear message as well as the title of a large painting-by-numbers artwork in the show.
Walter Benjamin, the Marxist cultural critic, saw how art had been changed radically by the introduction of techniques of mechanical reproduction. The exhibition shows how Warhol put Benjamin’s thesis into practice across several media, sometimes all at once, as in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — has there been a better description of US cultural imperialism? — which has been re-created in one room.
It demonstrates how Warhol took already famous images and “re-tweeted” them endlessly, a continuous replaying of images across multiple platforms which is strangely prophetic of the world of social media we now inhabit.
“Art is not a mirror of reality, but a hammer to change,” Bertholt Brecht said and, at first sight, Warhol’s work can seem to be just an unoriginal mirror, riffing off iconic images.
But immerse yourself in the exuberant diversity of painting, print, film and music in this exhibition and you begin to see the hammer behind the mirror. The strategies of repetition, simulation and hyper-real colour saturation in the silkscreened prints of celebrities and commodities both magnify and challenge the glossy capitalist culture of the US in the boom years.
Yet the exhibition also reveals the limits to Warhol’s radicalism. It may be unsettling and subversive but it is also disordered and incomplete. It is if you like a punkish and anarchist protest, not a popular proletarian revolution.
There is a coldness, an absence of a genuine and serious commitment to real change, which makes Warhol less politically challenging than comparable British artists like Richard Hamilton or Allen Jones. And there is a lack of an alternative, positive vision, of the kind hinted at in the best examples of 20th-century socialist realism.
So the democratic, radical and subversive drive ultimately remains mired in capitalist culture — it does not fully succeed in overthrowing and replacing it. This is highlighted by the adjoining exhibition next door by Gretchen Bender, a socialist feminist artist, which is far more of a challenge to the aggressive barrages of cliches, lies and corporate untruths in the mass media. A telling juxtaposition and a clever piece of curating by Tate Liverpool.
And of course Warhol eventually succumbed to the desire for money and fame. “Making money is art and good business is the best art,” he said. That commercial impulse, always present in his work, is all too clear from later paintings like Dollar Sign.
Overall this exhibition is a great opportunity to reflect on Warhol and his massive influence on modern art. He and his co-workers produced an extraordinarily vast, varied and provocative body of work and the strategies they employed, of appropriation, repetition and collaboration, changed the art of the late 20th century.
David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and many other artists since have echoed and replayed the fundamental clashes and contradictions, epic yet bland, of these artworks, where all images are visually analysed, deconstructed, contradicted, reflected, dethroned and made into icons.
And open, unsettling questions are always raised. What is art and how does it connect to ordinary people? What does our society really look like? How can dominant ideologies be challenged?
The best modern art is still trying to answer these uncomfortable questions, and therein lies the continuing power of Warhol’s ambiguous practice.
Runs until February 8, box office: tate.org.uk/liverpool
Mike Quille had a long career in the Probation Service and is now a poet, freelance journalist and political activist living on Tyneside.