Reigning Queens: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.1985

The exhibition of Andy Warhol works at Te Papa promised a new look at this controversial artist. Curator Sarah Farrar is quoted by the Dominion as saying: “Warhol’s such a popular icon, but we have a one dimensional idea of him”. She hopes that this show will change people’s views by emphasising Warhol’s obsession with people. These comments were made in the context of an article that featured his images of Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth as well as a side column detailing record prices for his work at recent sales.

The banner headline for the exhibition describes the aims of both the exhibition and Te Papa more succinctly than any curatorial blurb. It quotes Warhol as saying in 1980: “I’ve always wanted people to notice me”. These words could have been Te Papa’s as easily as Warhol’s. It is a pity that the chance wasn’t taken to use his work to make a more intelligent and critical commentary on his life, work, and the era he lived through. No complex word accompaniment would have been needed to present the enigma that his work represented.

The exhibition does concentrate on portraits and some of these, particularly the early drawings, are new and interesting. Some of these draw attention to his self obsession and his uneasy idealisation of himself as young and beautiful. Taken as a whole, however, the exhibition serves to confirm those stereotyped one dimensional views of the artist that the curator hopes will be broadened. In concentrating on Warhol’s portraits of celebrities the exhibition emphasises only one part of his overall examination of the American Dream, and ignores the critique contained within the work.

If these portraits had been juxtaposed with his Crash, Electric Chair or religious images, or even his ‘nose job’ and ‘dance lesson’ adaptations from advertisements, the portraits would be able to be seen as the perplexing, ironic and seductive images they were intended as. Warhol is characterised by the exhibition as obsessed with celebrity (not people) and as an advocate/adherent of the personality cult, 15-minutes-of-fame, consumerist, fashion oriented world that this work concentrates on. This is a very one-sided view of him.

Warhol was the child of immigrant parents from Slovakia, he was an outcast at school, an undeclared gay and sickly, tending towards hypochondria. He was manifestly narcissistic and was shot and almost killed by an associate in 1968. He died comparatively young – at 59 – from complications of a gall bladder operation that was delayed because of his fear of doctors and hospitals. He was a very complex character and to a great extent an outsider to the New York society that he eventually dominated, seduced, and was seduced by.

His biography describes a confused outsider, fascinated by gloss, fashion and wealth, at the same time as objectively observing its contradictions and his own engagement with it from a distance. His work always retains a flat detachment. His portraits are not about people, they are portraits of ‘image’, and ask questions about what it is to ‘be’. Are our lives to be judged by what we ‘are’, or what we appear to be to others? Is life substantial or is it image and branding? The audience has to wonder where Warhol stands. More personally he engages his audience in the game of seduction. Warhol’s stand is a little clearer here. It is obvious that he revels in it. At the same time as enjoying it however, he stands outside of the game and looks at the way it is played, at the same time as being totally aware of his own mastery.

The importance of Warhol’s work does not lie in his success as a celebrity. His work is far more critical, revolutionary and enduring than that. As well as his devastating critique of the celebrity life that he introduced into the art world and made himself a part of, his work in Pop had a significant influence on the way people saw and thought about Art. He undermined the idea that Art had to be the elite production of manual virtuosity. He introduced the idea that photographic reproduction and repetition could become Art. His introduction of commerce, advertising, pop, outrage, and lollypop superficiality into (high) Art outraged the establishment. In doing so he democratised that Art and made it the everyday art we recognise today.

It is a great shame that this opportunity to reveal art as critical, seductive and enigmatic has been missed. In presenting Warhol as a part of the celebrity culture he portrayed, Te Papa mis-represents him and his work and unwittingly supports a consumer culture of reality TV, paparazzi and commodification. Warhol is being marketed as a celebrity and commodity rather than the astute commentator that he was. In spite of these misgivings the exhibition is still worth a look.


No Title, from Electric Chairs 1971