A wealth of Warhol at London's Tate Modern
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 5, 2002)

LONDON - The crowds file solemnly through the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Tate Modern, the one-time Bankside power station that is now the chief modern art gallery of Britain. No one laughs and hardly anyone smiles, because appreciating art is a serious business, even if -- as is true in this case -- much of it began as whimsical, offhand gestures and was originally received by the world as amiable jokes.

In Europe, there's no longer anything funny about Andy Warhol. Fifteen years after his death and less than four decades after he made his best work, Warhol has become acknowledged as a prime example of what the exhibition catalogue calls "classical modernism."

Always a shameless celebrity-lover, he would be ecstatic to know that this month (the show ends April 1) he's a celebrity in Europe on the most serious level. The British and German curators of the exhibition argue that he stands among the major artists of recent times as (one German critic writes) "the most important chronicler of the second half of the 20th century."

Astonishingly, the Warhol material assembled from all over the world supports even their most extravagant claims. He has never looked better than he does here, at the south end of the famous Millennium Bridge that has stopped swaying and now firmly links the gallery with St. Paul's Cathedral.

Warhol's work seems more diverse and his imagination more fertile than on any previous occasion I can recall. Seen all in one place, his huge output demonstrates a force and depth that it lacks in smaller clusters. Art that once seemed mainly fey and amusing now looks confident, consistent and almost magisterial. In the course of this vast show, his talent never wears thin. After seeing 150 paintings, drawings and prints spread through 19 rooms across a whole floor of the gallery, I was ready for still more.

As someone who followed Warhol's development with varying enthusiasm for two decades, I discovered that the Germans and the British had a lot to show me. Their wisest decision was to depict him as an artist and filmmaker rather than a social phenomenon, the role in which people on this continent cast him for many years. They don't try to create an old-time 1960s atmosphere with fashion shows, exhibits of period advertising, political posters or rock music. They forget about context and let the work speak to us in the vernacular that the artist invented for his purposes.

Warhol's stature grows larger as his themes become clearer. He took on all the great subjects -- death, desire, fame, loneliness, the look of the world we live in. It's only as we watch him repeatedly confront these subjects, his sensibility twisting in response to the events and images of the moment, that we understand the persistent seriousness shaping his vision.

Among many other things, Warhol taught us to appreciate surfaces. During what may in the end be known as the Age of Andy Warhol, our Freud-drenched civilization was obsessed with seeking the meaning beneath whatever we observed. It was no small accomplishment to make us examine afresh the surfaces of the world around us, including the beauty of objects encountered in the supermarket.

An artist who catches a wave of fashion (or sets a fashion) often ends up as a period piece. That hasn't happened to Warhol, which is remarkable when we consider that his art comes to us from long ago. Some of his best prints were made following the deaths of Marilyn Monroe (1962) and John F. Kennedy (1963).

When Warhol died in 1987, at the age of 58, Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president, the Soviet empire was intact and most people didn't know the word "Internet." But his art remains alive. The Campbell's Soup cans, the Coke bottles, the portraits of Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley (the best Presley piece is borrowed from the Art Gallery of Ontario) seem as witty and perceptive as they did when he made them. To a surprising extent, Warhol remains a vital presence.

In conversation, Warhol had the style of a zombie. I found him a likeable man on those occasions when we met, but I never stopped wondering whether his boyish helplessness and passive-aggressive talk were merely studied mannerisms. (The catalogue refers to "cool voyeurism" and "his cult of distance.")

But his art is not nearly so lacking in emotion as he liked to suggest. The icons he created (Jacqueline Kennedy, Monroe, etc.) are charged with love and excitement, and his depictions of violent deaths in plane and car crashes convey power and dread, never emotional numbness.

If the Germans and the British give Warhol's work the serious attention it deserves, they can also sometimes be too serious. In their eyes, all Warhol periods command the same reverence. Even his notorious failures are venerated. The cow's-head wallpaper from the mid-1960s covers a wall at the Tate Modern, and some helium balloons he made at the same moment dance aimlessly through the air nearby. These oddities might better have been left in the tomb of bad ideas.

If the grandeur of the show increases Warhol's reputation, it also drains away his sense of comedy. Heiner Bastian, who curated it for the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin last year, contributes to the catalogue an essay bearing the unfortunate title Rituals of Unfulfillable Individuality: The Whereabouts of Emotions, which probably sounds better in German.

When he describes Warhol's technique of repetition (say, a painting of 210 Coke bottles arranged in rows), Bastian can't keep himself from writing phrases like "the return of the eternally same." Warhol's mischievous tone eludes him. Bastian writes: "One might perhaps best describe the Campbell's Soup cans as sublime and vital ... a modern Grimm's fairy tale that tells of one who went out into the world to learn about fear and to teach others to fear."

But there are moments, even in this august setting, when some of the old insouciance comes through. Walking through the exhibit, we find ourselves encountering films that Warhol made. We go into a dark room and sit on a bench to watch a few minutes of his grainy and inscrutable Empire, which was made by pointing a stationary camera at the Empire State Building for 24 hours. In those days Warhol seemed determined to take the motion out of motion pictures, and the result was usually more interesting to read about than see.

In another room we peek in on a 41-minute film that was equally famous in the 1960s, Blow Job. Here the camera focuses continuously on the face of a handsome young man who is being fellated. In that room I did notice a few muffled giggles among the teenagers and a fugitive smile or two on the faces of their elders. Watching Blow Job recalled the vast array of attitudes, at once imaginative, playful and obscene, that Warhol brought to culture.

One era's put-on is another era's classic. Did Warhol understand that would happen in his case? Probably he did. In his odd way, as this show proves, he understood a great deal more than he ever cared to say.

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