Andy Warhol (1928-1987) lived a life of irreconcilable contradictions. He regularly went to church on Sunday, didn’t run up debts and didn’t do drugs. He openly lived as a gay man at a time when many still preferred to hide their sexuality in the closet. Yet, in the 1980s, he claimed that he was a virgin (something which has been disputed). In spite of his celebrity status and his penchant for socialising with the rich and famous, Warhol was painfully shy in front of the camera, often giving monosyllabic answers responses media interviews.
Warhol worked in a variety of media (including film and photography), but he is best known for his silkscreen prints. Warhol’s silkscreen period (1962-1964) now forms the subject of the exhibition entitled, Andy Warhol: The Portfolios, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This show features many of the artist’s most iconic artworks such as his portraits of Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe.
What makes this period of the artist’s career so important from an art historical perspective is that the way in which he so brazenly interrogated the boundary between fine art and commercial art. Warhol’s working method involved printing a photograph of the initial image and then silkscreening layers of colour over it. The use of silkscreens meant that the images were easily reproducible into multiple editions. Controversially for the time, Warhol often deployed images that he had not produced himself, and widely enlisted the help of assistants to make his work. His use of images that were not his own called into question the entire enterprise of fine art. In the Western tradition since the Renaissance, art had been premised on the notion of producing unique original work, a tradition that Andy Warhol turned on its head.
A hallmark of Warhol’s style was to appropriate mass-produced goods that had become ubiquitous to the point of being almost invisible – and to transfigure them into works of art – by making them the subject of a large format print. In so doing, Warhol iconised the output of American consumer culture into objects of veneration. The Portfolios Exhibition hosts a selection of prints from Warhol’s trademark Campbell’s Soup series which typifies Warhol’s preoccupation with commercialism.
Equally as famous are Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, which are also featured in this show. The artist never attempted to hide his obsession with celebrity culture, and the trappings of power and money that invariably accompanied it. After his initial success, Warhol took to earning a large proportion of his income from commissioned portraits of the rich and famous. Not all of his subjects were very savoury, however, and his clients included the deposed Iranian monarch, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī. Warhol received much criticism from his detractors during this time – who feared that he had traded his previous art avant-guardism for the safer and more lucrative life of a court painter.
Soup cans and celebrities aside, the Portfolios Exhibition contains numerous examples of Warhol’s lesser known prints that will be of interest to art lovers – such as flowers, volcanic mountains, cartoon action heros, animals and a range of other subjects not generally associated with Warhol. In short, this exhibition is a must see if you happen to find yourself in South East London.
Words: Carla Raffinetti, © Artlyst
Andy Warhol: The Portfolios **** 4 stars – Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD, 20 June – 16 September 2012.
Photo: Muhammad Ali (1978) © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2011