Perfect Warholian Messiness | Andy Warhol @ TATE

By Lucy Harbron - 11:16

I’ve dedicated a fair amount of time to Warhol. I’ve read his books, slogged my way through his diary, forced myself to sit through several hours of his ‘anti-films’, and found myself hooked on any literature I can find to give me another view of the enigmatic icon. Every knows Andy Warhol but nobody knows him. After hours and hours dedicated, I still can’t make my mind up as to whether he was the social butterfly of the 60s scene or the ‘ambulatory black hole’ the Grateful Dead deemed him. Within a year I’ve moved from writing about the beauty of his friendship with Edie, to writing essays about his manipulation, to settling into an ongoing obsession with his multiplicity as no matter how much I read, I’m unable to pin down a personality for the icon. You can picture him so easily in your mind, pull up mental images of his works that are recreated world-wide, know the easy quotes off by heart, he feels like the easiest artist ever, but once you get into it, the image quickly blurs.

The more I started reading and watching, I got the feeling that Andy was laughing at us all from beyond the grave, desperately trying to find some meaning in his ‘wow yeah’ rhetoric and half-smirking answers proclaiming himself ‘empty’. With his most famous work being so simple and specifically made as a screen-print to be recreated as quickly and easily as possible, the over-arching legacy of Warhol is one of thoughtless living room prints and vapid American-dream myths, but I think his genius is in making us fall for that.

While so much has been written about every and all artists, it seems that none are aware and crafting of their legacy as Andy Warhol was. Though he famously said that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, Andy, who would’ve been 92 this year, secured his place in immortality and worked for it. Furiously recording his every thought through transcribed diaries, surrounding himself with photographers to capture every glamorous factory moment, even half-joking that after dying he’d allow his name to be used on anything that will make money, Warhol’s fleeting fame obsession and product-frenzy are immediately complicated.

I think I’ve settled into a love for it, stopped trying to pin him down into one thing, or characterise him as good or bad, but loving him for the messy multiplicity of his self and the self he made. Walking around the Tate exhibition, I forced myself to not get hooked on the sharp question mark corners of assumptions about the figure, simple staring starry-eyed at the scale of his work and silliness of his persona.

Even writing this is tricky, never knowing what path to take here. I don’t envy the Tate staff that had to sit down and craft a path round Warhol’s legacy, deciding which works to focus on and which parts to not. I had moments of love and hate in the exhibition. I loved the immediacy of the reminder that Warhol was once Varchola, careful to introduce the artist as an immigrant born into poverty, and not the capitalist All-American artist that the Make America Great Again age could morph into something sinister and wrong. In this, his simplest works get an immediate context; the soup cans seem brighter than ever when you’re reminded that Warhol’s early years were fed on watered-down ketchup. I loved the companion quotation of ‘a coke is a coke is a coke’, reframing pop-art as ‘commonism’, reminding you that American culture of Cola and Elvis transgress class and economy.

I had questions about the narrative of Warhol as a ‘shy gay man’, purposefully seeming to pull out his most erotic images, and choosing to display his film Sleep, a 6 hour still shot of a man sleeping. One Google search and you’ll find claims that Warhol was gay, bisexual, asexual, celibate and in a relationship with pretty much every single person he did a portrait of, meanwhile, Warhol himself said nothing about his sexuality. I was confused by the continuous references to his queerness mixed in with the reminders that Warhol purposefully and regularly distanced himself from the Gay Liberation movement, known for standing for pretty much nothing and finding politics a bore.

warhol tate

I hated the hero-worshipping energy of it all. In a small corridor you’re towered over by a portrait of Warhol’s scars, walking you through the experience of his shooting with little to no context beyond one page of the S.C.U.M manifesto, brushing over it as Warhol was shot by a radical feminist that wanted to kill all men. The absence of Edie Sedgwick, one of Warhol’s biggest muses and original superstar felt like an active erasure of the more exploitative sides of Warhol as a man that didn’t pay anyone and obsessively captures his friends' mental declines, choosing to show Sleep rather than Beauty No.2, a film of him grilling a drugged up Sedgwick about her sexual abuse while forcing a male model to kiss her. Instead, filling the exhibition with the 60s soundtrack of The Velvet Underground and funny moments from his TV appearances seemed to want to keep you in the narrative of Warhol and his friends as a group of faultless coolness and antics.

But the likes and dislikes made it perfectly messy.

While I stood in front of his 6-foot towering Elvis, my friend stared into the face of a corpse, repeated over and over. An intense car crash complete with splayed bodies reflected into his glossy flowers, his Brillo boxes sat pretty next to a recreation of a newspaper that screamed ‘129 DIE IN JET!’. The Tate, in attempting to carve a covid-friendly one-way path round Warhol’s identity, perfectly captured the manic light changes of his work, from his pop-culture obsession being the thinnest line away from morbid wallpapers of disasters and suicides. My friend was shocked, looking at the repeated print of a paused moment before a woman jumped to her death, never knowing that Warhol was so dark. I hear him laugh again from his final resting place, he tricked us. Writing a 2-sentence chapter on Death his The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the artist said simply ‘I don’t believe in it’, a complete lie from a man that dedicated a large majority of his career to studies of electric chairs, skeletons, dead bodies and mourning celebrities.

And that sums it up perfectly. Warhol left us with a mess of an identity that he knew we’d never decipher and settle for something chic and simple. He made a product of himself that was so shiny and consumable that we’re willing to brush over all the rest, showing us up to be the filthy capitalists and consumers we all are.

Stood near enough with my nose on the glass, I stared at the mistakes. In his flowers, you can sit little patches that missed a second coat. In 129 die, you can see the tracking lines for the typography and where he went over them. In his Marilyn Diptych, some of the faces are distorted or lines duplicated. All these little details won’t make the cut in your living room print, no.1084903858 to be made of that print. Maybe Warhol knew he could get away with messiness because when you’re dealing with celebrities, or products, or the American dream, it will always be blurred or simplified into perfection. Or maybe it was all purposeful and meaningful as some critics say, that Warhol duped us all with funny statements hiding the deep artistic and poetic thought behind his repeated Monroes. Or maybe Warhol himself didn’t know, didn’t care enough to think about it, just wanted to make his pictures and have his parties and capture the things and people he liked and get paid for it.

For better or worse, the Tate exhibition serves as proof that we’ve blown Warhol up to a god-like status, displaying his silver wigs in a case like ancient relics. And you can see that however you wish. A statement of our obsession with celebrity culture. A celebration of how an immigrant can become an American icon. A sad image of societies simplification of art. Or a shrine to our shared love for pretty, shiny things; a coke is a coke is a coke and we all love it, stare up at the nice pictures and say simply, ‘oh yeah’, ‘wow’, ‘gee whiz yes!’.  

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