Even people who think they know nothing and, quite possibly, care even less about contemporary art have probably heard of Andy Warhol. So ubiquitous are his screened Marilyn Monroe images, for instance, that they’re regularly parodied, even at the level of pound shop tat. This, believes Tate Liverpool’s Darren Pih, only emphasises the success of Warhol’s credo that “art should be for everyone”. The curator of this new show says that Warhol played a pivotal role in redefining access to culture, using such means as television, film, fashion, magazines and album covers to disseminate his art. It’s that thought which lies at the heart of Transmitting Andy Warhol, one of three new exhibitions at Tate Liverpool which opens their Autumn/Winter season, entitled Making Things Public.
It’s an impressive show, bringing together more than 100 works across a range of media, ranging from the well-known – the 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.
While many have seen his Sticky Fingers LP cover for The Rolling Stones or The Velvet Underground And Nico album art, who remembers The Painter by Paul Anka or ever saw his ground-breaking TV programmes? Seen side-by-side with dozens of covers for his equally-prescient celebrity-celebrating publication Interview or later paintings like Gun, you really do begin to get an inkling of just how vast his output was and how deadpan funny much of it remains. That’s even before you get to the final room, an overwhelming recreation of the live art experience that was the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, lovingly recreated by Pih and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh using restored film footage and truly taking no prisoners. In the calm ante-room to this particular storm, incidentally, you might spot Lou Reed’s original handwritten lyrics to I’m Waiting For The Man and Venus In Furs.
“Art,” Warhol once said, “is what you can get away with” and lines like that have allowed nay-sayers to dismiss him as a charmless chancer. But Transmitting Andy Warhol is a fascinatingly instructive insight into the real breadth of his artistic processes and philosophies.
Some of the daring social, political and aesthetic implications of his work are picked up in the Tate’s sister exhibition, devoted to the work of American artist Gretchen Bender. She’s not nearly as well known as Warhol, yet on the evidence of this first UK solo exhibition of her work, she really should be much more widely appreciated.
Bender came to prominence in the 1980s and was closely associated with the ‘Pictures Generation’ of artists whose work appropriated mass media imagery and its clichés for critical ends. Later in her career she directed music videos for the likes of New Order, Megadeth and Babes in Toyland, several of which can be seen at the Tate. But the highlight of this exhibition is undoubtedly Total Recall, a gigantic multi-media piece from 1987, where stacks of monitors showing multiplied fragments of television imagery, advertisements and logos are married to aggressive editing and sound to overload the viewer’s perception.
By contrast, The Serving Library downstairs in the ground floor Wolfson Gallery and housed within the architectural structure designed by French architect Claude Parent for the recent Biennial, is hushed and contemplative. It draws on 14 years of the publications Dot Dot Dot and Bulletins Of the Serving Library to ask visitors to “reconsider the traditional role of the library”.
The links between the exhibitions and the over-arching theme of Making Things Public will be taken up at a number of public events between now and next February. There’s also a ‘curator exchange’ event in January where Pih and Open Eye Gallery director Lorenzo Fusi will discuss the similarities and differences between Warhol and artist Robert Heinecken.
Lessons In Posing Subjects, also now open at the Open Eye Gallery (just minutes away from Tate Liverpool, along the docks in one of those three black buildings), is another UK first, a major exhibition dedicated to the artist Robert Heinecken. Although widely regarded as one of America’s most influential post-war photographers and a pioneer of 20th century photographic experimentation, Heinecken actually rarely used a camera, preferring to describe himself as a “para-photographer” because his work stood beside or beyond traditional ideas associated with photography. Instead he chose to cut up and rework images found in news-stand magazines (be warned, some of them pornographic) to create a photo-based satire on American consumerism and the use of sex to sell almost everything to anyone. Absolutely fascinating, provocative stuff and well worth a visit, especially (but not only) if you’re going to check out the Tate’s current high-profile exhibitions.
By Kevin Bourke
Robert Heinecken: Lessons in Posing Subjects is free at the Open Eye Gallery, Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront, until January 11, 2015 (closed December 24-January 1)