Little did the Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller realise that a chance meeting with Andy Warhol would have a pivotal effect on his creative perspective, and future art career. At the tender age of 20, the artist took up an invitation from Warhol to hang out at the artist’s eponymous Factory. It was 1986 and Deller was an art history graduate, bumping into Warhol at Anthony d’Offay Gallery, where he was approached by one of Warhol’s entourage. The visit remained entirely professional – until Deller was groped by the famous Pop artist. Now, Deller has curated an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford in which he places Warhol alongside another of his heroes: that of the English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist William Morris.
Jeremy Deller was kind enough to give Artlyst a tour of the exhibition, and talks in this second part of a three part conversation about the decision to juxtapose the work of, what would at first, appear to be two quite disparate artists.
“Both artists were working during the ’empire phases’ of the countries that they lived and worked in. If you think about the post-war American empire – and you can talk about it in those terms – Warhol is really chronicling the American empire, the way I see it; and of course Morris was working in the mid to late Victorian era, and was a huge critic of the British Empire and what it was doing abroad. Very far-sightedly Morris was talking about Indian craftsmen not being able to get work due to export bans on certain cloths and other materials from India to help the British cotton industry, so he was very aware of the effect of the British Empire on workers abroad.
What we don’t really think of with Warhol – and again it’s this problem with Warhol – that he is seen as a shallow character, and not a politically engaged artist. But actually his work is full of political and social commentary, which was something that I wanted to bring out in this exhibition. A very timely and late work is Warhol’s Russian intercontinental missile bases map, it was created in about the last five years of Warhol’s career, and there’s quite a lot of dark imagery during this period – there’s guns, knives, crucifixes, an endangered species series, a Native American series – and also the last self-portraits – that were very deathly works.
I believe we need to think about Warhol again, about what he was doing and looking at, because I think he was commenting a lot about American society throughout his career.
With the electric chair and the race riot series, I was very exited to put this on top of Morris’ wallpaper [William Morris wallpaper adorns the walls of the gallery] I was very interested in the contrast between them; I imagine Warhol would’ve loved this, as he had a very keen sense of art history, he was a technically talented artist as well, and I suspect that he would’ve enjoyed this kind of context. It’s weird that today I’m an artist who has curated a show of Warhol – and Morris – as one of the first artists to ever curate a show in a gallery such as this was Warhol in the late 60’s. He did a show called ‘Raiding The Ice Box’, at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, and took their collection that didn’t get shown very often, and created an exhibition from it. It was a very famous show including items like hundreds of shoes in boxes – weirdly his house ended up looking like this exhibition, as you know, due to his collecting activities.
So this second part [of the upper main gallery] is about politics, but also about power – we have Morris’ illustrations created for the Vanderbilt’s, and also for the royal family. Morris was no fan of the royal family, but saw working for the powerful as a means to realise his own projects. They thought he was working for them – but they were actually working for him – this was actually how Morris saw it.
Morris as you know became a revolutionary socialist, not necessarily a Communist – strangely Andy Warhol had used the invented term ‘commonism’ meaning he felt that everyone should enjoy the same things – like the can of coke, or the artwork, or the poster – so in a way he was an egalitarian as was Morris really. Morris’ magazine ‘Commonweal’ is from 1886, with stories varying between the stock market of the day, to vegetarianism, European involvement in Russian affairs – and a socialist meeting on Pembroke Street – which is actually the location of this gallery. This magazine was published by Morris – Its inclusion shows that he was a man of political conviction. Morris would walk around with a sandwich board – at the same time he wrote plays, and poems and saw these varying aspects of his career as a single entity. People try to compartmentalise both of these artist’s, but Morris and Warhol both had these big careers where everything that they did was for the same reason – they both need to be judged as a whole.
The image of Chairman Mao, used in Warhol’s work here, was the most reproduced image in the world: and it is of course only natural for an artist such as Andy Warhol to be interested in that image. its ‘face value’ is that it’s kind of a gnomic image, it’s a little like some of his female portraits in that you aren’t sure exactly what’s going on in their heads – now of course we know what was going on in that head! – and it wasn’t particularly pleasant. It’s a very famous images – and interesting in that it is the most reproduced image – and yet it’s of a communist and not a film star, but a tyrant. Which is why Warhol wanted to play with it – and he does play with it; he smears the colours over it – is it a socio-political comment? – I don’t know, but it’s almost as if Warhol is trying to deflate the power of Mao. Both artists presented their convictions in a myriad of ways.”
Part three of the Jeremy Deller’s tour of Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol will be next Saturday
Read part three of Jeremy Deller’s tour here
Read part one of Jeremy Deller’s tour here
Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol – Modern Art Oxford – until 8 March 2015
Words: Jeremy Deller with Paul Black Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2014 photo Artlyst all rights reserved