Sunday 8 February 2015

The death of Andy Warhol

Tonight, the Liverpool Tate will close the doors of its Warhol exhibition. Attendance figures are staggering and, yesterday evening, when I viewed it, the exhibition space was more like a crowded train station than a museum of art (depending of course on what you think either should be like). So, Warhol's popularity is undimmed. Yet, can the same be said for his relevance? 

The exhibition contained some of the iconic images that made him famous. There were the Marilyn Monroe portraits and the canned soup pictures. These images have seeped into our collective consciousness and are part of our memories of pop art as a movement. Yet, apart from those iconic pieces, there was little that stood out through originality or aesthetic value. Perhaps the most instructive piece was a brief advertising clip for a chocolate sundae, a genuinely crafty piece, that mixed novel filming techniques with a slowly distancing lens. In this commercial work, Warhol seemed to reveal some originality. The remainder of the exhibition was filled with random tapings of television programmes and snapshots of varying yet usually gratuitous irrelevance. 

What struck me most about Warhol's work was its almost deliberate and wilful rejection of meaning in art, a stubborn resistance to be relevant within a social and cultural arena. In a sense, his work is even incapable of cultivating a cocky attitude, the ironic sticking two fingers to the world as later post-modernists would do, such as Damien Hirst. Throughout the exhibition the most dominant impression of Warhol as an artist was his absence as a political, cultural or social interpreter, or simply as somebody who cares about something, anything. This approach of wilful irrelevance is certainly not celebrated by Warhol. He does not imbue it with meaning, or pseudo-religious undertones. It is simply there and he appears to say: I couldn't care less, make of this what you want. 

This stress on social and cultural irrelevance goes hand in hand with a complete lack of humour or irony in his work, regardless of the repetition of Monroe's portrait. This does not mean that the exhibition was not educational. Somehow along the way, as Warhol taped TV programmes, his work captured a sense of irrelevance that may have been prevalent at a certain time, dominating the lives of a whole generation of a small cultural elite (no doubt fuelled by copious consumptions of drugs). I emerged from the show with a deep feeling of gratitude that these times were behind us, that the deliberate celebration of emptiness did not catch on, except of course in the realms of television, film, advertising, pop music and social media. Not that those are of any importance... 

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