The many faces of a modern icon

His once groundbreaking work may have become commonplace but a new exhibition shows Warhol still has a capacity to surprise, writes Alan O’Riordan

AFTER seeing an Andy Warhol show consisting of hundreds of sculptures designed to look like cartons of Corn Flakes, Heinz ketchup and other consumables, the critic Arthur Danto posed this question: “Why is something that looks exactly like a Brillo box a work of art, but a Brillo box is not?” He might have asked the same question of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade art decades earlier, but the question is still worth asking of pop art, and much of what we call modern art: what is it about an object that exhibits little or no sign of artistic “talent” that makes it art?

When Warhol raised this question in the early 1960s, he was, in a way, upping the ante on his pop art predecessors: infiltrating that high-art world with objects of mass affluence and consumerism that were still taboo for “serious” artists. That the line between high and low art is now so thoroughly blurred is a testament to Warhol’s legacy. But it also raises questions about the work itself: no longer provocative in its original sense, and with concepts that now border on the banal (due to their very success), is there much point for an audience in seeing, up close, these over-familiar images?

A good place to answer this question is at the MAC, Belfast’s new multidisciplinary arts centre. Its Warhol exhibition, while not an exhaustive survey or retrospective, shows there’s more to the artist than Brillo boxes and soup cans, and that, in the right context, his work still has the capacity to surprise.

The exhibition, across three galleries at the MAC, is primarily drawn from the Artist Rooms collection, which is jointly owned by the Tate Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, and is supplemented by several works, films and a series of special events.

For curator Hugh Mulholland, the show succeeds in presenting little-seen later works “in the context of earlier works and images that people will be familiar with”.

The visitor first encounters a room of poster works, “representations of all the iconic images,” says Mulholland: Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, Jackie Kennedy and more. The posters, says Mulholland, “have a group interest in terms of the graphic design, the connections with his work on film, works like Chelsea Girls, with the Velvet Underground.”

Among works that make the Warhol exhibit accessible, Mulholland counts Silver Clouds — a 1966 work consisting of a room full of cushions made of metallic plastic film that float and bounce off each other, and bystanders — and the Cow Wallpaper. The wallpaper is an example of Warhol’s mischievous streak, and his transgression of art-world taboos, as Mulholland explains. “It was in response to a gallerist’s suggestion that no one painted pastoral scenes anymore. Warhol’s response was not to paint a pastoral scene, but to use a repeated image of a cow that he found in an agricultural magazine. There’s a mischief at play with him all the time.”

Another addition to the Artist Rooms material greets the visitor before ascending to the upper gallery: Self Portrait Strangulation, an arresting example of the artist’s often poignant and unnerving self-portraits. “He used himself in a lot of work but was never happy with how he looked,” says Mulholland. “A lot of the portraits are quite stark, quite sad. These pictures are all very studied and mannered: there’s nothing carefree. There’s a blank, vacant expression. He’s seemingly giving you something, but he’s not.”

That ambiguity of revelation and dissembling persists into the exhibition’s highlight, a collection of later works from Warhol’s Ads and Illustrations series. Drawn from the last two years of the artist’s life, these black-and-white diptychs form a stark revisitation of Warhol’s major themes of consumerism, war, religion and death. The icons are stripped back: a mostly-white hamburger, a dollar sign, a pair of paratrooper’s boots, the bubble-fonted words: “Repent and sin no more!”. The underlying fear and insecurity of Cold War America, something that suffuses all Warhol’s works, is here laid bare as the artist faces his own mortality, the passing of his own 15 minutes.

The black-and-white is here broken by the many colours of Camouflage, a work that, with Warhol in mind, needs little explanation. “I’ve had experience working with Gilbert and George,” says Mulholland, referring to the arch Britart double act, “and the way in which they present themselves, there is a persona there all the time and you never quite knew whether it was them as people or as Gilbert and George the artists. But I’ve seen them fall out of that persona on one or two occasions. I asked Anthony d’Offay, who donated the collection, and who’d met and worked with Warhol, if he every dropped the persona. He said no. Even though Anthony had a working relationship with him, he found he was always acting up, always presenting what he wanted to present.”

Unlike in visual art, the conventions of cinema have largely remained unchanged since even before Warhol’s time. The Hollywood style is so taken for granted in our culture that its artifice only surfaces when audiences complain of the unsettling oddness of films that are not in that mould. So, it is in his films that Warhol’s original strangeness is most apparent now. He may or may not have made anti-art, but he certainly made anti-films, eschewing direction, editing, production values, actors, and all other traditional cinematic considerations. He went beyond his contemporary avant-garde peers simply by doing as little that was artificial as possible. His film Sleep (1963) is just that: a man sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes. Empire (1964) is an eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. Eat (1963) shows a man eating a single mushroom, very slowly. And Beauty No 2 (1965) shows, in a single, fixed shot, two people having an inane and sometimes maddening conversation for over an hour. The films are shown as part of the exhibition at weekends.

“There is a lot of attention to technical proficiency in cinema and in a way Warhol used a poverty of means to make the work,” says Mulholland. “He used the people who frequented the Factory as the actors and often wouldn’t even direct anything; he’d simply allow people act out in front of the camera or to sit in front of the camera and then he’d move off into another part of the building. In that respect there was something new happening there.”

As for the rest of Warhol’s work, the shock of the new is long faded. He is now both a stereotype and a saint of the official art world, a world in which culture is only ever seen as edifying, wholesome, a “good thing” . Nonetheless, in those stark later works, which make plain what is unsettling about previous takes on consumerism and fame, Warhol confirms an abiding ability to offer more than we perhaps remember or expect.

The MAC makes its mark

The MAC sits in Saint Anne’s Square in what has become Belfast’s cultural quarter: the area of the inner city around Saint Anne’s cathedral. The narrow red-brick streets were pounded by the Luftwaffe in World War II, and, for obvious reasons, the area remained rundown for decades. Now, artists’ studios abound, with, it seems, a bistro on every corner. Under arches are cobbled alleyways shorn of any sense of foreboding, but filled with bars and cafes, and murals of the non-sectarian kind. As MAC chief executive Anne McReynolds explains, it’s a bit like Belfast’s Temple Bar, but “without the hen and stag parties”.

McReynolds doesn’t hide her enthusiasm for the achievement that the MAC presents, and the potential it offers the arts scene in the city. It’s hard to blame her: she’s been involved in planning the venue since 1996, and it only opened 10 months ago. “There’s so many things I love about the MAC,” she says, “and the location is one of them. The fact that it is in the Cathedral Quarter, which has been welcomed as Belfast’s cultural quarter, it’s the oldest part of the city and it used to be badly rundown. One of the gifts the government gave us was the land to build the MAC. In terms of regeneration the MAC was about driving footfall into an area of the city that was beleaguered and, honestly, the quarter is so fun and exciting now.”

Saint Anne’s Square itself has a touch of “anywhere Europe” about it, with its collonades and apartments, but it is generic in the best possible way, and a fine, classic four-sided city square. The MAC forms one side of the square, rising above the narrow space in the form of a basalt tower, flanked by red-brick blocks, and topped with a glazed cubic lantern. Despite its imposing height, the exterior belies the MAC’s 5,500 square metres of interior space. “That’s 65 three-bedroom semi-detached houses,” says McReynolds. The entrance lobby gives way to a three-story atrium of exposed brick, around which are interior terraces and balconies leading to the working spaces: two theatres, a 350-seater and a 120-seater; several galleries; a dance studio; and rehearsal space. “It’s really like a Tardis,” says McReynolds.

“The entrances are really quite unassuming. They’re not bombastic and overwhelming, so whenever people come in for the first time, there’s invariably a gasp when they see the atrium which is not what you’d expect from the outside. I love that.

“We call ourselves the home for all the arts in the centre of the city. It’s a space that works really well for artists and audiences. We have a role working with local producers across the art forms including visual artists, dancers, theatre practitioners, musicians, writers: working to help them benefit from the MAC.

“We want the MAC to change things, to provide more and better opportunities for artists to fly. But in partnership with that we want to present what we create to an audience that is really broad.”

Picture: Some of the Warhol works on display at the MAC in Belfast. Picture: Justin Kernoghan

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