Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Warhol Unlimited @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1978-79
Not another Warhol exhibition! I was surprised when the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris announced that its major winter exhibition would be yet another Warhol extravaganza. I assumed I didn’t need to go, as I often do when there is an exhibition of an artist’s work that I have seen over and over again. I left it until its final week to visit. And then, of course, the exhibition was filled with surprises and a million reasons to see more Andy Warhol, yet again.
Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1978-79
The exhibition celebrates the first ever European installation of Shadows (1978-79), and fittingly focuses on a small, but important, selection of Warhol’s series. Shadows, a single work of 102 canvases, the same abstract shadow ricocheting around the curve of the Museum’s main gallery space, each canvas instance in a different colour scheme, reminds the museum (according to the exhibition pamphlet) of individual film frames. The relations between Warhol’s serial screen prints and film strips is no revelation. Indeed, this relationship has often been remarked on. What’s more interesting than the film/painting relationship--and rarely discussed--is the romanticism and painterliness of his work. Shadows presents a particularly outstanding example of this. Of course, it’s not Abstract Expressionist, but neither is Warhol’s painting the factory produced or reproducible object that undiscerning critics make it out to be. Warhol’s reference points may be mass production, commercialism, the press, political and social violence, but the texture of paint on a canvas is as rich and sometimes dense as that of his contemporaries, such as Franz Kline or Clifford Styll. There is always movement and depth on and within the Warhol canvas. I was struck by this texture, thus the variability between canvases in the 102 Shadows. This work has nothing to do with sameness, flatness, predictability or ease of comprehension. It’s abstract and troubling.
Andy Warhol, Screen Tests in exhibition
The exhibition of the Screen Tests here is innovative, but predictably, disappointing. These four minute treasures from 1964 are rarely satisfying when seen in a museum because they were not made to be exhibited in this way. At the Musée d’Art Moderne, multiple screens create an architectural space inside which we stand, always distracted by the screen on our right or left as we try to focus on the one in front of us. I still think the most satisfying display of the Screen Tests is found in my avant-garde and experimental film seminar: one after the other, in a small, intimate blackened out room, in silence. Watching them in this way is revelatory. As we focus on the one image for four minutes the personality of the sitter comes alive: who can forget Anne Buchanan’s tear, Lou Reed and the coke bottle, Mario Banana and the banana? We need to watch them from beginning to end, concentrating, to be with the personality as it emerges across four minutes.

Blow Job, a 35 minute film, shot and shown here on 16mm, is placed in the middle of the Screen Tests, a curatorial decision that completely confuses visitors, I would have thought. The museum insists that the DVD transfers of the Screen Tests must be seen as reproductions, thereby acknowledging the impoverishment of the images we see. And yet, they place Blow Job in the middle of the tests without mentioning its differences. My purist demands aside, it’s great to see some of the tests that have not been published on DVD - Duchamp, Ondine, Bob Dylan, Artaud, Mario Banana. Seeing them in the context of Warhol’s larger project, immediately following a room devoted to self-portraits, I was impressed by the transparency of these works as collaborations. They are portraits based on a close collaboration, even if the collaboration happened by accident. Warhol’s involvement is clearly marked by the use of framing, distance, lighting, and color. And then, given four minutes to behave in front of the camera as they choose to, the subjects are given the responsibility of the performance.
Andy Warhol, Sixteen Jackies, 1964
Walking around, I was also struck by how much of the exhibition is, in so many ways about death, destruction. In turn, both are equated with the press. The Jackie Kennedy series is divine: glamour, death and petition. The unpredictability of the silk screen process: varying, saturation, uneven inking, makes each one different, each Jackie more poignant than the previous one. She, like Marilyn, and curiously connected to Mao and Elvis are slaughtered by the press even as they are celebrated. The Richter connection is obvious: he too made portraits of Jackie, at about the same time. Both artists make portraits that are beautiful, mysterious, and deeply saddened by the fetishization of an icon.
Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1969
As I say, the exhibition opens with a room of self-portraits. Warhol needed to represent himself repeatedly. It was how he would find out: who am I? The personality of the artist is the title of the Brillo boxes exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964. Each one is different, lovingly made. Again, they may refer to mass production, but each is hand made, and each then each box becomes a portrait. After the Brillo boxes, a whole room, in its entirety is a portrait of Mao. Mao represents “The Cult of the Personality” which takes on a whole new meaning after Warhol, because of Warhol, and Mao as he is seen by Warhol. Mao is everywhere and everyone in this room: wall paper, portraits, overpainting, portraits defaced, made beautiful, he smiles, scowls, has a myriad different expressions because of the overpainting, the manipulation, the painterly touches that are anything but mass produced.
Andy Warhol, Chairman Mao, 1972-73
I came away from the exhibition feeling very nostalgic for the 60s, a time when it was possible to create, to explore ideas and take risks, without today’s urgent imperative to make money from one’s art in order to succeed. I looked on with a kind of longing for the days of The Factory (or La Factory as they call it in French!), for a time when it was still possible to have a place in mid-town Manhattan, where things really happened, and the institutions and commerces in the midst embraced the extreme, the blue skies romantic ideals of young artists. Today, the Warhols and his hangers-on are all priced out of Manhattan, out of risk and experimentation.

Warhol changed the definition and limits of art irrevocably. Indeed, this exhibition makes us aware, it’s because it was the 60s that such radical transformation could happen. I was bemoaning the loss of such inspiration today, and nostalgically yearning for the complications of creative possibility to a friend of my generation. He quickly reminded me that it’s because of Warhol that art is a commercial business today. We live in a world where different demands are made on art, to the point that the immense risk and vast scale of Warhol’s oeuvre could never happen today; it is a phenomenon of the 60s. And in the ultimate irony? It’s because of Warhol that what Warhol did is no longer possible today.

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