He may have famously declared “I like boring things”, but Andy Warhol is the last person one would describe as dull. Shy, perhaps; though his work, of course, was anything but – at once exuberant, avant-garde, expressive and unapologetic. Warhol, with his shock of white hair and wire-framed glasses, is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, the leading exponent of the Pop Art movement and a true visionary.
This spring sees the opening of a major new Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern, its first for almost 20 years, which celebrates Warhol’s path from his humble beginnings as the son of Slovakian immigrants to prolific pop artist, and gives us a compelling insight into how his oeuvre marked a period of cultural and political transformation.
Warhol started life as Andrew Warhola, born in Pennsylvania in 1928. After moving to New York in 1949, he dropped the ‘a’ from his surname and began work as a commercial illustrator, fast gaining a reputation for his lighthearted, whimsical drawings.
Long fascinated by consumerism, celebrity and counterculture, Warhol began to play around with American imagery in the early 1960s, focusing on mass-produced commercial goods and screen-printing their simple graphic designs onto a canvas (he used a similar technique to create his acclaimed portraits).
As Warhol himself once said: “Once you ‘got’ pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought pop, you could never see America the same way again.”
In 1962, Warhol founded The Factory, his NYC studio, which became the hub of the city’s social scene, frequented by an artistic, hedonistic crowd. It was also a space in which Warhol continued to push boundaries, whether that was experimenting with other forms of mass media, authoring books, co-managing The Velvet Underground, founding the magazine Interview or producing his groundbreaking prints.
Many of these iconic images will be on display in the Tate show – Marilyn Monroe, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup cans included, as well as rarely loaned works including a 1980 portrait of Debbie Harry and the poignant Sixty Last Suppers, one of his final works before his untimely death in 1987, on view for the first time in this country.
This retrospective digs deep, highlighting Warhol’s fascination around desire, identity and belief. We learn how religion was a significant context to his work (his family were devout followers of the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church). Warhol’s sexuality, too, is an important theme, with his evocative 1950s drawings of male nudes paired alongside the film Sleep (1963), which documents his lover, the poet John Giorno.
A highlight, however, has to be the room dedicated to the largest grouping of his 1975 Ladies and Gentlemen series ever shown in the UK. The portraits, among Warhol’s lesser known works, depict figures from New York’s transgender community, including iconic performer and activist Marsha ‘Pay it no Mind’ Johnson – a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969.
Whether emotive pencil drawings or large-scale painting projects, floating installations or instantly recognisable works from the pop period, more than 100 pieces in this exhibition serve to help us better understand how Warhol the ‘outsider’ became an American icon who changed the art world forever.