• Archie Gibbs

Andy Warhol Exhibition Review at Tate Modern

Updated: May 14, 2020

Warhol’s celebrity precedes introduction. Though as with any polemic figure, oversimplifications entrench his public perception. Warhol’s brash, brazen persona stifled some yet allured many. Tate Modern’s story of modern art posits Warhol as a pivotal figure who earmarks the bifurcation in many western-centric, encyclopaedic modern art institutions – pre and post Warhol. The museum’s stellar collection includes over 400 works with many capstone pieces such as Marilyn Diptychs and the infamous Campbell Soup Cans. The exhibition queers the art history of Warhol from decades prior when the last retrospective occurred and does so with relative success, though the overall amalgamation of an oeuvre stretching 3 decades seems an impossible task.

With such a large collection of the canonised artist of the post war period, the Tate’s decision to reaffirm the canonical position of Warhol is understandable. Centring themes of his queer identity, the immigrant story and religion in the show, the aim is to centre known pieces through an alternate narrative and lens in order to prise a new reading and added complexity to the works often overlooked. The exhibition eschews his status as sole ‘Pop Artist’ and attempts a break with art historical taxonomy by delving into the man behind the art.

For an artist so widely documented, collected and quoted, the exhibition does an impressive job of positing the salience of lesser known works in his career trajectory and personhood. Silver Clouds (1966) certainly stands out. Loaned from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the work is the classic Warhol pastiche, this time of the hetero-, dogmatic virile minimalist sculptures favoured by New York commercial galleries at time of production. Whimsically described as ‘paintings that float’, the ubiquitous silver metallic colour clads these tactile and dynamic balloons. Their presence reminds you of your space and being within a gallery as with conventional minimalism, though assuredly evoking more joy. The frivolity and ephemerality of balloons points out a sad passivity in minimalist geometry; they transform the gallery space into one of childlike wonder and imagination.

His more figurative work include many references to queer culture and activism in New York in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Never exhibited in the UK before, his series of Black and Latinx drag performers from Greenwich Village’s The Gilded Grape in ‘Ladies and Gentlemen (1975)’ explores gender performativity, persona and celebrity. Warhol celebrates non-conforming neighbourhood heroes with colour and raw expression; he constructs the queen’s faces through an assortment of vibrant colours and forms in a classic postmodernist technique. Warhol engages with the notion of performativity and provokes uncertainty of the ‘authentic’ gender by exaggerating certain features such as the lipsticked mouth and eyeshadow. There is an undeniable admiration and fascination in these portraits with Warhol adding celebrity status to the public obscured but community heralded figures. Though beyond the neon exuberance, there is a pathos suffusing these dynamic works. Warhol portrays the sitters with anti-naturalistic brushwork in a manner akin to the expressionists, affirming the intensity of what it means to be marginalised. Ladies and Gentlemen centres the non-represented and offers a chance to rethink celebrity culture, appropriate for all year round but especially essential during the LGBTQ+ pride month of June.

The exhibition is ambitious in theory, eschewing art historical platitudes championing Warhol’s pop art celebrity. Andy Warhol centres the artists life and identity throughout his spanning career, one which shifted art world paradigms of commerce, conceptualism, and celebrity forever. The show is certainly people pleasing, offering all of the hits (the iconic ‘Campbell soup cans’, ‘Marilyn’ and ‘Coca-cola’ from the permanent collection all make appearances). Another solo exhibition for a name-brand white male artist is not the most inspired move by the Tate, though it gives interesting alternative history of the man himself and his milieu. At £22 for general admission, those with specific Warhol interests may ultimately find the show worth the money. However if you are going for the soup cans and bright colours, wait until October so you can see them for free instead.

‘Andy Warhol’ is on view at Tate Modern, London until 6 September 2020. Tickets start at £22 for adults.