When I lived in London, I approached blockbuster art shows with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Exhibitions like the Royal Academy’s landmark From Russia left me breathless and prompted one critic to dub it “one damn masterpiece after another”, while Caravaggio: The Final Years at the National Gallery was unforgettable. But, and it’s a big but, these experiences were tainted by sharp-elbowed thronging crowds and crippling ticket prices (if you could get a ticket at all).
Thank god, then, for the North. Yes, we have blockbuster events, and yes, they are popular. But they’re cheaper, less frantic and entirely more enjoyable. Take Tate Liverpool‘s current Andy Warhol exhibition. It’s the biggest solo show to focus on the breadth of the pop artist’s activities ever to grace these shores, not to mention a showcase of one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. And yet there’s no bun fight to acquire tickets, and it’s possible to get close to the works (more than 100 of them) without incurring the wrath of other visitors.
Darren Pih is exhibitions and displays curator at Tate Liverpool. He says that Transmitting Andy Warhol is a springboard, a jumping off point to show how Warhol’s work practice went beyond being purely a painter.
“In the mid-60s, Warhol’s practice expanded sideways and he began to make films, he published his first novel, he published his own celebrity magazine,” Pih tells Northern Soul. “That same replication began to infiltrate the processes of mass media. He infiltrated mass media to distribute his radical ideas and imagery.”
He adds: “There was something very political about what Warhol was doing, something very radical about the imagery and iconography [he used] from everyday life and then re-circulated through art. And the collaborative way he was working in the 60s, becoming a production line, that was politically interesting.”
Highlights from Transmitting Andy Warhol include the famous Marilyn Diptych, Dance Diagram and the notorious 24-hour film State, to such rarely-seen artifacts as his 1968 TV commercial for Schrafft’s, consisting of a psychedelicized close-up of an ice-cream sundae. There’s also the much-loved works Three Brillo Soap Pad Boxes 1964/68 and Campbell’s Soup I 1968. The intention is to juxtapose the major paintings with Warhol works across a wide range of media in order to explore the artist’s experiments with mass-produced imagery.
Pih believes that Warhol anticipated the modern practice of circulating pictures through digital media, of sharing an image “with an infinite number of people instantaneously”.
“Warhol’s work is really interesting for contemporary artists. Warhol’s idea of conflating film, television, pop art and performance in a single work anticipated the blurring between private experience and mass culture. It’s interesting to think how Warhol would have responded to the internet.”
Tate Liverpool’s exhibition examines how Warhol’s work went beyond the gallery to penetrate mass media itself. According to Kevin Bourke, who reviewed Transmitting Andy Warhol for Northern Soul, “you really do begin to get an inkling of just how vast his output was and how deadpan funny much of it remains” and the show is “a fascinatingly instructive insight into the real breadth of his artistic processes and philosophies”. But there’s more to it than Warhol alone.
Tate’s sister exhibition, devoted to American artist Gretchen Bender, is the first solo showcase of Bender’s work in the UK. Bender, who died in 2004, came to prominence in the 80s and is celebrated for her large-scale video theatre installations and screen prints on tin signs. She is also known for music videos with bands including New Order, Megadeth and Babes in Toyland. So why the decision to run her work in conjunction with Warhol?
“In a way, her work is a critical response to Warhol,” says Pih. “Like him, she was responding to the exponential rise of mass media, and TV in particular. She began to recognise that corporate self-interest. But she was far more critical of mass media. Warhol infiltrated mass media to disperse his work while Gretchen used TV as a weapon against TV. She was a real pioneer. ”
To read Northern Soul’s review of Transmitting Andy Warhol, click here
Transmitting Andy Warhol is at Tate Liverpool until February 8, 2015