No other modern artist has become as widely-recognised outside the art world and left such a deep impression on popular culture as Andy Warhol. Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Andrew Warhol moved to New York in the 1950s, and launched a successful career as a commercial illustrator. Through an editorial typo he became Andy Warhol. By the mid-1960s Warhol had become a main player on the New York underground scene and a central figure in the Pop Art movement, famous for his iconic silkscreens of Hollywood stars and his use of imagery from mass culture, as well as for his controversial avant-garde films. But while Warhol’s Pop aesthetic has become a recognisable brand as widely known as the McDonald’s logo, not many people are aware of the full extent of the Warhol empire. Other Voices, Other Rooms, a new exhibition opening in October at the Hayward gallery, seeks to take a fresh look at the entire spectrum of the Warhol legacy and open up new perspectives on the complex identity of this camp cult figure. Whereas previous Warhol exhibitions have focused mainly on his portraits and screen prints, this ambitious project is conceived as a multimedia installation spanning Warhol’s entire oeuvre. Grouped into three conceptual areas or “landscapes” – Cosmos, Filmscape and TV Scape – it comprises Warhol’s rarely seen avant-garde films, screen-tests, video work, TV shows, album cover designs, his celebrity magazine Interview, and seminal paintings, drawings and installations. The exhibition also offers a rare chance to see archive material from The Warhol Museum, including the contents of one of Warhol’s Time Capsules – a collection of paraphernalia from his everyday life. Warhol’s egalitarian attitude to art and life, and his philosophy that “all is pretty”, runs through the exhibition, which ascribes equal meaning to all aspects of his work, which in turn are connected by recurring motifs and themes. While we can expect to meet the usual suspects, including Elvis, Marilyn and the obligatory Campbell soup cans, there is also a strong emphasis on Warhol’s film and TV work, which suggests that while his paintings and graphic works were “brand-friendly” and lent themselves easily to canonization, conquering the mass media was another major factor in his ambition to gain more than just 15 minutes of fame.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is not only the first comprehensive exhibition of Warhol’s entire oeuvre since his death, it is also one of the few major Warhol showcases organised entirely without Warhol’s involvement or consent. While it is of course common for a retrospective to take place posthumously, in the form of an independent summing-up of the artist’s career, this large-scale Warhol project – organised jointly by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Moderna Museet Stockholm and e Warhol Museum – is packaged as an art installation in itself: a lavishly-designed Warhol Universe created by the Berlin designers Chezweitz & Roseapple, which invites visitors to stroll around and explore Warhol’s inner landscape through displays, documentaries, audio-visual listening posts and a recreated installation of his famous silver balloons. It is a kaleidoscopic showcase of the many elements of the Warhol empire, brought together as separate entities unified within a Warholian meta-art work.
Th exhibition’s subtitle Other Voices, Other Rooms is taken from a novel by Warhol’s favourite writer, Truman Capote, and alludes to the problematic identity that Warhol shared with the novel’s protagonist. This theme is continued through the subdivison of the exhibition into “landscapes”. As curator Eva Meyer-Hermann explains, “the atmopshere of the landscape of a human soul mapped out [in Capote’s novel] is transposed into the exhibition landscape”. The area Cosmos, which presents a multitude of Warhol exhibits including screen prints, photographs and other archive material, is supposed to lead the viewer into “Warhol’s universe of ideas”. Its title alludes to the treatise Kosmos, written by the nineteenth-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and draws parallels with Warhol’s own fascination with the world and everyday objects. Similarly in Filmscape, the simultaneous screening of a whole range of Warhol’s films seeks to give the visitor a chance to look beyond Warhol’s surface. His film works are presented as independent aesthetic entities, which also interact and relate to each other to create a new “meta-film”. According to Meyer-Hermann, “this presentation is neither pure documentation nor work of art: it does not fully conform to any usual expectations yet it has something of everything.” Certainly an ambitious project – given the fact that Warhol considered himself as a mirror reflected on the surface of his work.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, then promises to be a highly polished multimedia spectacle. It is accompanied by a well-designed catalogue which takes the form of a visual essay, with each chapter structured in time-units rather than page numbers. But can such an installation give us a true glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of Andy Warhol? And was Warhol really only the sum of his work? While the highly subjective curatorial concept might seem slightly problematic, this approach may not be so far removed from Warhol’s totalising aesthetic as one might think. As Matthew Wilson Smith pointed out, Warhol productions in the s could often oscillate between being a Warhol showcase controlled by Warhol the “impresario/artist” or a communal artwork overseen by Warhol the “shy spectator/collaborator”. Olle Granath’s account of the preparations for the first Warhol retrospective of in Stockholm, published in the Hayward’s exhibition catalogue, certainly shows Warhol in the latter incarnation. It reveals not only how difficult it was already, at such an early stage in Warhol’s career, to put together an exhibition of his work, but also shows how much of it depended on the curators’ and organisers’ own creative input. When logistical problems made it impossible to ship Warhol’s “real” Brillo boxes from America, Granath was forced to order Brillo cardboard boxes from the Brillo factory, which were arranged into a huge pile and displayed as a Warhol installation. Olle Granath’s memoirs are revealing in many ways: we also learn that the exact wording of Warhol’s most famous quotation, “In the future everybody will be world-famous for minutes”, had actually been formulated and canonized by Granath himself, in the exhibition catalogue.
Ironically Andy Warhol, a master of publicity who was obsessed with stardom and celebrity, was very shy and tormented by insecurities about his appearance. He carefully constructed his image through visual representations in portraits and photographs, and also through interviews and memoirs mostly co-written by members of his Factory. Warhol’s entourage of assistants played a considerable part in creating his public image. Unedited interviews by Gretchen Berg, presented for the first time in the exhibition, reveal that Warhol often didn’t actually say the words attributed to him, which sheds light on how carefully manufactured the Warhol image had been. As Hubertus Butin points out in an essay on Warhol’s portraits and self-presentation, his celebrity fame was not only built on the aesthetic of his widely known brand of screen prints with motifs from consumer society, but also rested on his skills as a publicity man and the “highly effective presentation of his persona and his public appearance”.
Whether the the exhibition manages to expose Warhol’s inner depths remains to be seen, but what this all-encompassing, multi-faceted portrait of Andy Warhol shows is that his ultimate work of art was probably himself. As Matthew Wilson Smith notes out in his study of the Total Work of Art, the combination of a wide range of media, including visual art, film, video, performance, music, fashion, memoires, TV shows and magazine publishing into a single system that openly celebrated commercial culture, was a characteristic feature of the all-encompassing multimedia project that went by the name of Andy Warhol. Towards the end of his life Warhol even launched his own modeling career (one could book him through model agency Zoli for TV appearances) and fantasized about having himself cloned. Warhol first started exploring the aesthetics of merging different art forms in with the Happening Andy Warhol, Up-Tight at the Film- Makers’ Cinematheque in New York, which combined his avant-garde films, slide projections, music by the Velvet Underground, dancing and photography. The following year he continued with an expanded version of this spectacle renamed Exploding Plastic Inevitable – a showcase of the many parts of the Warhol empire, which is now considered as one of the key events in the development of multimedia.
Warhol radically embraced the mass-cultural spectacle and continuously worked on the expansion of his brand across a wide range of different media. He moved swiftly from one new contemporary mass media form to the next, always quick to recognize the commercial potential of his latest vehicles. After his experimentation with Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the 1960s, his gossipy celebrity magazine Interview became a new platform for showcasing the Warhol philosophy in the ’70s. In the 1980s, Warhol was involved in a series of TV shows including Fashion, Andy Warhol’s TV and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes for MTV, in which he appeared alongside celebrity friends such as Debbie Harry and Jerry Hall. 42 episodes from these series can also be viewed in the TV-Scape area of the Hayward exhibition. Here all the different elements, including the Superstars, the art, the fashion, the music, the Happenings and the “highly manufactured body of Warhol himself” were interwoven into a “camp-commercial utopia” that blurred distinctions not only between art and commerce but between art and everyday life, as Matthew Wilson Smith explains. And if we extrapolate, we can only imagine the full extent of the Warhol empire, had Warhol lived to see the days of digital technology and the unlimited possibilities of the ever-expanding world-wide web.
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.
Even after Warhol’s death on February , his multimedia project continued to grow and started to lead a life of its own. In 1994, The Andy Warhol Museum opened in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Simply called “ The Warhol”, it defines itself as a forum which is “ever-changing, constantly redefining itself in relationship to contemporary life”, a place where visitors are “galvanized through creative interactions with the art and life of Andy Warhol”. The idea of an art museum as personification of Andy Warhol seems to echo a line from the quirky song ‘Andy Warhol’ by David Bowie, another PR-savvy superstar hugely influenced by Warhol: “Put a peephole in my brain/ Two New Pence to have a go/ Like to be a gallery/ Put you all inside my show”. Warhol also still remains a safe source for revenue, as the flourishing Warhol merchandise industry proves. Apart from putting on regular exhibitions and managing his archive, The Warhol Museum also prides itself selling the “widest available selection” of Warhol merchandise, including books, posters, videos, postcards, dessert plates, magnets and coffee mugs.
Warhol and his entourage of Superstars continue to fascinate us. One of the most recent retellings of the Warhol story saw Guy Pearce playing the cult artist in the biopic Factory Girl, charting the downfall of the self-destructive Superstar Edie Sedgwick, star of numerous Warhol productions that can be watched in Filmscape. The film saw leading actress and (similarly pointless) it-girl Sienna Miller prancing about as Edie for months after the filming had finished, sparking a fashion craze for short peroxide haircuts and silver mini-dresses – never was dressing like a suicidal drug-addict more en vogue. Truckloads of books have been written about Warhol: his art, his films, his bands, and even about the fashion he inspired which became the topic of the coffee table book The Warhol Look. Memoirs of members of his entourage also keep turning up on the coffee table from time to time in an attempt to rehash (and cash in on) their own minutes of fame. The opening of the Hayward exhibition, then, also promises to launch a major Warhol revival – so brace yourself for the return of Pop Art with a vengeance.
“Each decade and each generation sees their Warhol in a different light”, we are told in the foreword to the Hayward’s exhibition catalogue. Whether we get a glimpse of the real Warhol remains to be seen. Given the extent of this comprehensive exhibition, we are bound to discover new facets of this mysterious cult artist. But what might be just as interesting is what kind of Warhol we get to see. While previous generations of art historians have tried to canonize Warhol’s paintings and prints, and justify his status as a serious artist, we seem to be more willing than ever to embrace the all-encompassing spectacle that went under the name of Warhol, from cult artist to PR man and media mogul. In this sense, this ambitious exhibition not only sheds light on the full extent of Warhol’s totalising multimedia project, but also on our changing perception of what we consider art and artists to be. Matthew Wilson Smith once pointed out that any total work of art created in a consumer society, such as Andy Warhol’s empire, is a reflection of the totalising system from which it emerges. If we take this as truth, it seems that the representation of Warhol’s work as meta-art work may be as revealing about our own culture as it is about Warhol. And as always, even from beyond the grave, Warhol continues to hold up the mirror to our society. He still has the last laugh – or as Warhol might have said, “Uh, gee, great”.