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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 1 September 2008

Andy Warhol

September 2, 2008

For Andy and After

Perspectives on Curating West Coast Pop Art

Marlaina Buch, Curatorial Assistant,

Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery

The Andy Warhol art/brand enterprise has outlived his proclamation that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” In many ways, the Andy concept deserves to endure beyond its watershed moment in art history. Warhol’s slick mash-up of commercial production, rock n roll aesthetic, fabricated persona and attentive documentation of superficiality swung a glittering wrecking ball through the sacred temple of Modern Art. For better or for worse, Warhol’s Duchampian trickery rolled a red carpet straight from the club to the gallery and collapsed formal distinctions between art, life, business, reality and work. This is the single most important result of his extensive output and the reason his influence is still being echoed by the work of contemporary artists today.

The advances of the digital age make us re-evaluate Warhol’s work. Basic Photoshop functions can replicate his silkscreen techniques in minutes. Albums have given way to downloading and cover art and inserts have become digital booklets. Facebook is the new voyeur’s simulated happening, blogs function as the Everyperson’s gossip rag and YouTube beams Everyone’s Factory party around the globe. Had he lived to see it, Warhol would have been mesmerized by developments in production technology and would certainly have known how to capitalize on the ever-sensational global celebrity system and larger than life advertising campaigns of the 90s. How do iconoclasts keep pace with the times and maintain the relevancy of their legacy posthumously? The artists who now make work under the Pop Art mantle are the answer. Warhol set the precedent and today’s image and tastemakers are continuing to push his ideas in new, unimagined directions.

Closer to home, Canada has seen a number of significant Warhol- and Pop Art-themed exhibits this year. In September, Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts will host Warhol Live, the first exhibit to examine music as a fundamental part of Warhol’s art. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is showing Warhol: Larger Than Life, a traveling exhibit organized by the Winnipeg Art Gallery that showcases a cross section of Warhol’s oeuvre. The Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery in Victoria is exhibiting P/OP! : Parallel Visions in Pop and Op. This show features the work of major American Pop artists including Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns from the collection but also includes works by prominent West Coast artists connected to The Western Front Society in Vancouver. The Western Front is one of Canada’s first artist-run centers and in its heyday was a hub that functioned much like the Factory.

In putting together the Maltwood’s! show, head curator Caroline Riedel wanted to emphasize the influence of Pop Art on local artists. She searched the collection for British Columbian artists whose work approximated the aesthetics and concerns of major American and British Pop masters. Significant early works by the recent Governor General’s Award winner and Western Front co-founder, Eric Metcalfe, anchor the show. Metcalfe’s medium-blurring career began in Victoria, where he studied with Dana Atchley, Joan Brown and Denis Bowen. He later became involved with a mail art collective known as Image Bank, which included Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov. The collective acted as a proto-internet network of artists trading ideas and images and collaborating on experimental projects.

Metcalfe worked with groundbreaking artists in Vancouver including his then wife Kate Craig, with whom he created the personas of Dr. and Lady Brut. The art duo is best known for projects involving leopard print objects expressing the meaning of banal exotica in contemporary culture. Metcalfe also fabricated a research venture called Leopard Realty and painted a massive leopard print mural on the Vancouver Art Gallery. The show at the Maltwood Gallery features “The Boys in the Band”: four wooden cutouts of jazz players with leopard-spotted saxophones. The cutouts are props from Metcalfe’s videos and live performances, along with his special saxophone with a kazoo built in and his jazz persona. He adopted this persona most famously in the “Mr. Peanut For Mayor Campaign”, where he dressed in a Mr. Peanut costume and followed Vincent Trasov around the streets of Vancouver attempting to convince passersby that he was fit for politics.

In the early 70s, Western Front was an artistic society comprised of considerable artistic force and witnessed a roll call of Canada's most celebrated contemporary artists, including Paul Wong, General Idea, Gary Lee Nova and Gathie Falk, pass through its doors. Film, performance and dance were strongly integrated into programming. Western Front was Canada’s answer to Warhol’s Factory. The dissolution of artistic boundaries separating mediums, practices and accepted approaches to art began to define the period. The communal and collaborative pooling of creative ideas significantly informed the work produced at both Western Front and the Factory. Warhol had a cast of characters at his disposal, a built-in entourage and the makings of a party rolled into his workspace. This artistic availability and sense of creative license also permeated Western Front, resulting in risk taking that pushed art into daily life and daily life into art.

Andy Warhol’s work resonates beyond a facile homage. His totemic presence is uncompromised by the staggering amount of Andy products on the market, and his turning his work into a commodity supports his philosophy: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Warhol’s conceptual advances broke open an entirely new arena of social art. Other artists at the time contributed, but Warhol’s marketing sensibilities launched him towards the stardom he chased his entire life. In an era of Paris Hilton, Starbucks and MySpace, it’s no surprise that artists still explore the glamorous surface of the superficial people and products that constitute our dearest vices.

> P/OP!

Mattwood Art Museum and Gallery

April 14 - September 22


An Explosion Of Narrative Codes

Nisa Malli

Over 20 years after his death, the ultimate interdisciplinary artist Andy Warhol is popping up in museums and galleries. In September, Warhol Live, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, looks at his musical influences, and on October 10, The Montreal Contemporary Art Museum launches Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967. Out west, Warhol: Larger Than Life is touring the galleries.

Interdisciplinary exhibitions such as the Palant House Gallery’s Eye Music: Kandisnksy, Klee and All That Jazz are a current trend in curating but the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has been ahead of the curve for decades. “There is a trend of making connections between the different realms, the different worlds of art,” says Stephane Aquin, the Museum’s curator of contemporary art. “But we’ve been doing it for 25 years.” In 2001, the Museum’s Hitchcock and Art exhibit analyzed Hitchcock’s inspirations in 19th- and 20th-century art. Last year, Once Upon a Time Walt Disney highlighted the great European illustrators hired by Disney Studios.

Aquin says the idea came from a Picasso exhibit he attended with museum director Nathalie Bondil. “Warhol was the leading artist in the mid-20th century in the same way that Picasso was at the beginning of the century.” They summed up their eras and foreshadowed the future. Despite the influx of Warhol exhibits, no gallery had examined the role of music in Warhol’s life.

But there is more to the story than just music. Warhol worked in film, photography, illustration and installation. He started a magazine, made music videos and turned his studio into a revolving piece of performance art. Aquin and Bondil said: “Let’s do the whole narrative.” The result is an exhibit akin to a Fluxus happening, a Warholian performance of images, movement and sound that invites the spectator to choose between participating and viewing.

Warhol’s narrative began in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. His family attended a Byzantine Catholic church known for its choral compositions and holy icons. He was born in 1928, the same year as Shirley Temple and one year after the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released. The Wizard of Oz came out when he was nine years old and Warhol remained a Judy Garland fan until his death. These were Warhol’s first musical influences: the vespers of his childhood and the Golden Era of the Musical. At the Carnegie Institute of Technology he studied design and discovered classical music and dance, which led him to illustrate for Dance Magazine and Opera News in New York. “He was what they used to call a sensitiva,” says Aquin.

The Warhol Live show is organized chronologically and thematically. To curate an exhibit of this complexity, Aquin says you have to look at how objects relate genealogically. Warhol would have loved this. Photographs of his apartment show he was an obsessive collector: everything from cookie jars to diamonds, colonial furniture to folk art. Every month he swept the contents of his desk into a time capsule. By the time he died, his record collection was enormous.

The Juke Box Room will house this collection alongside his cover illustrations. The room tells two different stories. “His illustrations tell the story of the dominant taste in America,” says Aquin. We see the evolution from classical to jazz to rock to pop. What would Warhol listen to now? “He’d probably love Britney Spears when she was first on the scene. He liked people who had the look. But he was most serious about opera.” His personal collection contained many Wagner recordings and he had season tickets to the Met. Aquin says, “His nostalgia comes out of opera, for the lost fusion of the arts.” In 1964 Warhol opened the Silver Factory, a tinfoil-sheathed studio on East 47th Street that became a perpetual performance piece. At parties he played opera and rock music from separate stereos, or Maria Callas records between Velvet Underground rehearsals.

His other major musical influence was John Cage and the New Music, which he discovered in the early 1960s. Cage was a pioneer of the American Fluxus movement and best known for his 1952 composition 4’3”, in which the musicians were silent. The sound came from the audience rustling, chairs creaking, and bows scraping against thighs. From Cage and Satie he took the idea of furniture music, “that will be part of the noises of the environment” (Cage, Living Room) and applied it to film, inventing the first film installations. “All of Warhol’s work is made to reflect the world around him and silence himself,” Aquin explains. “His art is fundamentally Cagian.”

Though he was a child of the Hollywood Narrative, Warhol tore traditional film structure apart. “His contribution to cinema is groundbreaking,” says Aquin. “It was an explosion of all narrative codes.” Sleep (1963) borrowed techniques from repetitive music, subtly varying the image throughout the film. In Empire (1964) he demolished the idea of film time, aiming a camera at the Empire State Building in real time for eight hours straight. Sleep, Kiss, Haircut and Eat (1964) was screened on repeating loop cartridges and scored by La Monte Young, the Fluxus minimalist composer. Warhol was in an artistic dialogue with other conceptual minimalists such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Yvonne Rainer, and Erik Satie.

What is it about Andy Warhol that made his fame so resilient to time? “He’s a more complete artist,” says Aquin. “It’s his capacity to take the very right, simple decisions that transport an image to the exquisite.” The depth and breadth of Warhol’s work is only now becoming apparent, as art and film finally catch up to Warhol with the aid of technology.

The exhibit ends in the portrait room. The room is a kaleidoscope of fame: musicians, millionaires, and models mugging for the camera with Warhol at the centre: the mirror held up to the stage. Aquin’s favourite is a photo of Warhol in drag. His face is covered with white makeup and his red lips are grave. “There is nothing of the drag queen as comedian here,” says Aquin. “Looking at this photo, you realize that the superficial, funny Andy was just another mask.” Underneath the makeup and the persona was a devoted workaholic who recorded hundreds of films and supported himself with commissions during the first decades of his career. At the end, the exhibit asks us to replace our reading of Warhol’s pop art as a comment on commercialism with a more deeply aesthetic philosophy.

> The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Warhol Live

September 25 - January 18


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