ARTIST ROOMS: Andy Warhol - Review
For many, Andy Warhol encapsulates the American Dream. The son of Polish immigrants, he rose from humble beginnings to become a millionaire artist recognised the world over. He was a friend of the stars. And the Velvet Underground? You only know of them because of Warhol. Yet whilst we associate Warhol with colourful prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, there was a lesser known side to the artist.
Aside from his commercial art, Warhol depicted a more horrifying representation of America. When foraging through the trash cans of the Land of the Free for darker subject matter, he came up with the electric chair, airplane crashes and people sleeping for twenty-four hours. None of this is surprising when you consider that, despite capitalism making him a rich man, Warhol was a strong critic of mass consumption and the wild lust for stuff that capitalism impregnates us with – if we let it.
He wasn’t a radiant American star in the vein of Marilyn Monroe. He was an anti-star, an eccentric who “created” a body double as a way of coping with his innate shyness, and who secretly taped his conversations, and - when possible - chose to eat alone. He also died for a few minutes after being shot by a feminist activist. It was classic Warhol, though it wounded him mentally until his final and actual death.
It is with this context in mind that I saw the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester this week. Gathered together are not Warhol’s scathing but nice-to-look at critiques of capitalism (the soup tins, the Elvis Presley’s et cetera), but the artist's searing symbols of death, such as his series of Electric Chair paintings, to give us a dramatic overture of Andy’s crumbling, Lynchian American Dream wherein everything is not all as it seems.
His depictions of one of the darkest American iconographies ever - the electric chair - are Warhol’s venture into politics. Other similar political works on display at the exhibition include Gun and Dollar Sign, which both throw into doubt the idea that Polish-American Warhola (as he was originally known) actually loved America.
When you look closely at Warhol’s works in the room at the Whitworth, you see his preoccupation with death, a preoccupation he apparently had for the rest of his life after the episode with the would-be feminist assassin. There is a photo of his scarred stomach on display, which is as arresting as it is poignant. It dispenses with any idea that artists are sat on a pedestal, distant from society. It shows us that, actually, the artist is a hero who really is ready to die for his art.
Only, the sad paradox is that Warhol wasn’t ready to die. He was terrified of death. And it is this sense of horror that pervades the exhibition. He shows us death chambers and war. He shows us the dark side of the moon. But he is always as distant as a photographer. It was his style to be coldly removed and to let us do the thinking and dying.
The exhibition presents a side to Warhol many casual observers may be unfamiliar with. Like everything else, our consumerist society has learned how to filter out his 'bad' stuff, keeping only his women, singers and vibrant colours. But here we get to encounter a side of Warhol that, though it might be gloomy, is probably more quintessentially Warhol than any of his other work.
ARTIST ROOMS: Andy Warhol is exhibited at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester 19 November 2016 - 16 April 2017