Firstsite, Colchester – Saturday 19 March – Sunday 12 June 2016
It’s satisfying when an exhibition opens your mind and helps you to better see and understand an artist’s place in history and their influence. This exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester made me look beyond Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987 American) iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and got me focused on what he achieved as the first artist Pop Artist.
In an age when it’s not that difficult to ‘do a Warhol’ in Photoshop, it is easy to dismiss his work as superficial and in doing so you might actually be getting the point. To quote the artist:
“If you want to know about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me. And there I am, there’s nothing behind it.”
The work we tend to be familiar with is about the brash America of the time – consumerism, brands, money and celebrity but he also explored war, death and religion as themes.
In the 60s he worked as an illustrator of fashion magazines. His artistic aim was to move from commercial illustration to fine art and he started painting iconic objects, including commercial brands, and famous people. He founded his studio, The Factory in New York and put together a team of people to help produce is work. It’s ironic that he became a brand himself. He was unashamedly commercial:
“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Warhol’s experimental use of photo image stencils brought photography and screen printing together with the results we are familiar with today. A bit like Photoshop without a computer.
During the 70s and 80s his images of celebrities became ever more simplified but by retaining the essence of the sitter, they remained instantly recognisable and this reinforced their iconic status. This is absolutely what visual brand development is about. And certainly as an artist I aspire to simplify my work while at the same time increasing its impact. Of course it is easier said than done.
Warhol’s larger than life prints of artists Gilbert and George, graphic artist Joseph Beuys, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and others were on display and exemplify his approach.
The exhibition opened my eyes to Warhol’s exploration of death and these are the images that made most impact on me. They included his self-portrait with skull, ‘stitched photos’ (as his group works are called) of skulls, a self portrait while being strangled (Strangulation 1978) and his Electric Chair Portfolio. To Warhol death was just another commodity:
“You’d be surprised how many people want to hang an electric chair on their living room wall. Specially if the background colour matches the drapes.”
Warhol was by influenced Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau and you can see this clearly in his drawings. He developed a reductive style of linear drawing including the pictures of young boys the produced in the 50s. There are several line drawings with graphite on show including portraits of David Hockney and Mick Jagger produced in 1974/75. They show an aspect of the artist’s work we don’t usually see.
I’m about to get started on assignment 5 and one of my aspirations is to be braver with colour and of course there is no one more confident with colour than Warhol with his vivid colours in stark contrasts.
I found the quotes scattered around the exhibition particularly entertaining. They are direct, insightful and just as acidic as his colour palette!
Take a look at my Warhol Pinterest board to see some of Warhol’s drawings and screenprints.
National Portrait Gallery