Warhol’s real-life art pops with variation against a backdrop of screens and digital duplication
Last week, I made an offhand comparison between the somewhat disappointing ticket sales for the run of musical revival King Kong: Legend of a Boxer at the Joburg Theatre and the impressive attendance figures for Warhol Unscreened: Artworks from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection at the Wits Art Museum (WAM).
It is, of course, a little unfair to yoke these two Braamfontein arts beasts together.
For one thing, the Warhol works can be viewed free of charge; this would be impossible for King Kong, even if Bank of America Merrill Lynch and their exhibition cosponsors were to put an equivalent amount into the stage production.
And, while visitors came in their thousands when Warhol Unscreened opened in July, those numbers couldn’t be sustained. Still, even a large gallery space such as WAM is enlivened by the combination of a troop of school children and a few dozen adults. When 500 people are seated in the Nelson Mandela Theatre, the auditorium is still half-empty.
Take away the comparison to King Kong, however, and the interest in Warhol remains a significant subject in itself. So, this week, I took myself back to WAM for a second look.
The clever (but trite) response to an exhibition such as this one is to insist on the irony that we are flocking to it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see work by Andy Warhol – when arguably the key intervention of the Pop Art movement he led was to question our collective attachment to the “authenticity” or “uniqueness” of a particular image, especially one that has the status of “fine art”.
That may be so. Certainly, when we elevate Warhol – call him a genius, an iconoclast – we are playing a fool’s game. Was Warhol a pioneer in critiquing mass culture, conspicuous consumption and celebrity obsession? Or, was he simply a great promoter of these phenomena?
He was both; or, rather, he embraced one or the other by turns, depending on the audience and the occasion.
Nonetheless, precisely because Warhol’s distinctive style has become ubiquitous, the chance to see editions of his modified screen prints framed and hanging on a wall is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Nowadays, there are plenty of apps that can give any photograph the Warhol treatment; for decades, it has been difficult to tell the difference between a Warhol “original” and an imitation. That is, I suppose, the point.
But, given that we encounter Warhol almost exclusively on phone and computer screens, it is strangely gratifying to study works by him in the knowledge they were produced, albeit en masse, in the predigital era.
The portraits famously emphasise their own twodimensionality, turning a limitation of the medium into a self-conscious virtue. And yet, on inspection, this assumed “flatness” is a fallacy.
The works sparkle with diamond dust. They offer seemingly endless variations in colour and line – and as viewers, we have to remind ourselves that these variations are not produced by a program or a template or a virtual filter.
Even after all these years, Warhol’s work has the ability to lure us into a false sense that it is produced according to a lazy formula; when it is studied carefully, however, the elements suggest otherwise.
It has become a truism that Warhol, more than any other artist, contributed to the collapsing of “high” and “low” culture. Like all received wisdom, this assertion has lost its effect. An exhibition such as this presents us with the chance to revisit such claims.
The material is presented with an awareness of South African viewers’ potential disconnection from Warhol’s US. This is at times slightly overdetermined, but there is also an intriguing visual dialogue between Warhol’s work and the screen prints by local artists in the parallel exhibition One Colour at a Time: Contemporary Screenprints.
Both are on display until October 8.