ARTYFACTS: Warhol, tinned and packaged

Monday, September 03, 2007

Warhol, tinned and packaged

Crass exterior
After last year’s disastrous Gauguin exhibition, I wasn’t expecting much. The National Gallery in Edinburgh is as far removed from Warhol’s natural habitat as one could imagine. Curated Warhol always seems like tinned soup – insipid, never quite what the label promises. First impressions are not good – they’ve wrapped the Doric columns of the gallery in Cambell tomato soup tins. This is crass. (Ian Rankin wittily suggested Baxters)

Good start
Inside, however, we get some early drawings showing his use of coco-cola bottles, repetition, blotting techniques and cut materials. His portraits of contemporary celebrities has Liza Minelli, Liz Taylor, Maryln Monroe, Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper through to Grace Jones. The still-shocking images of death (gangster’s funeral, car crash, suicide etc) are real but distant. They seem like innocent prints but when you interrogate them, they’re brutal, bare and nihilistic.

Arthur danto was right to see the brillo pds as the end of the western narrative in art. That narrative, a narrative of progress, came to and end and npothing has been the same since. From then on anything could be art and Warhol's point was that we, as people, could also be anything we want to be. The boundary between high and low art had become obliterated.

The packaging as art theme has several cardboard boxes and the famous pyramid of brillo boxes. This still packs a punch. This was the work that changed art forever. Sure art works had been used in the commercial world to sell. Artists had also delved into the world of commerce and publicity. However, Warhol was the first to reverse the pipe and suck in commercial images straight into the art world. Nothing has been the same since.

The four minute screen tests are well worth watching but no one has bothered to tell you who the faces are. This is fine for 50 year olds like me who recognise Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper and Nico, but what about all the youngsters I saw – why be so oblique? The fact that he hoarded every last piece of print and paraphernalia is interesting, but tumbling a box out onto a shelf was of little interest. Of course, this is easy, non-contentious stuff. They could, and should have been bolder, perhaps showing Blow Job (film of a young man’s face with action down below, off-screen).

The big rooms have Warhol wallpaper covering every wall of the huge gallery rooms and the double images of revolvers, hamburgers and missile sites but it’s all very clean, like someone’s minimalist living room. It’s not so much Warhol as the gallery or curator showing his/her supposed smarts. The only bit of fun to be had in the Silver Cloud room where you can push huge silver bags way up to join others in the high space. It’s great to watch those who see galleries as temples get annoyed when kids and oddballs treat the room like a bouncy castle.

All in all it’s Warhol tinned and packaged to the hilt. Curators should have more fun with Warhol. Maybe some Velvet Underground or Lou Reed playing in the background, or a night club atmosphere. This may be 50 million pounds worth of Warhol’s works but it ain’t Warhol. The curators are the sort of people who have never taken drugs and never been to a nightclub. All of this reverence and packaging is the antithesis of what his art says and does.


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