Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art
National Gallery of Canada
By the time Andy Warhol appeared as a guest star on the TV series The Love Boat in 1985, his status as an artist had been all but eclipsed by his own celebrity. The artist had become what we would now call "branded" as "Andy," publisher, gadfly, model, ad man, TV producer, and star. This Warhol, contends Pop Life co-curator and Artforum editor-at-large Jack Bankowsky, was a savvy marketer who eradicated the critical distance between art and, if not life, then at least entertainment and the marketplace. Bankowsky and his fellow curators, Alison Gingeras, chief curator of the Pinault Collection, and Catherine Wood, curator of Contemporary Art and Performance at Tate Modern, have assembled some of the key figures who embraced Warhol's adage that "good business is the best art," and have gone on to cultivate their own signature artistic "brands."
On 15 September 2008, as New Yorkers and the rest of the world awoke to news that Manhattan-based global credit giant Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a financial frenzy of a much different sort was getting underway across the pond at a highfalutin address on London's New Bond Street. Well-heeled collectors and moneyed first-time art buyers from around the globe had descended on Sotheby's for a twoday sale of works by arguably the most famous artist living today, Damien Hirst. Beautiful Inside My Head Forever was more orchestrated performance than auction
Well as can be expected the exhibition planning has made me quite swamped and not able to keep up as much with my running online diary. However, I was drafting a note just after the media previews earlier this Spring that I'm now ready to post. Every year the gallery does a "media tour" to announce the line-up of exhibitions and this time around Pop Life was the featured show and I was asked to present a 20 minute preview to the journalists that came to these junkets in Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto. Turnout was quite good for all three venues and there was strong interest in many aspects of Pop Life, especially in Ottawa as we had a set of identical twins - Sophie and Isabelle Lynch - interrupt the end of my talk as it was announced that the NGC would be recreating a work by Damien Hirst from 1992 involving identical twins in the gallery. More info on the project is available on this website, and if you are, or know a set of identical twins please contact email@example.com!
There's a lot more in Pop Life than the twins, and my preview gave a peak at a number of show highlights, and moreover aimed to impart the story that is Pop Life, an exhibition that visually illustrates how a generation of artists borne under the combined influences of the readymade, conceptualism, Pop art and a burgeoning global economy of mass media and consumption in the 1980s, came to think about their position within the broader realm of culture. As a story it must start somewhere, and Pop Life starts with Warhol, the late period of his career that I wrote about in my last posting.
In the space of a twenty minute talk it is difficult obviously to get into all the nuances of an exhibition like this or any other, which is why after the press previews we invite journalists to join for lunch in order to ask more specific questions and engage in a broader discussion.
One particularly fulfilling conversation that I had in this regard was with Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen who had a comment and a question that I think a lot of people will have when they read about Pop Life: is this all really new? I had hinted at the readymade in the intro to my talk about the 'shock of the new' that was the readymade, Duchamp and Dada, Pop and conceptual art had already engaged in and imparted on the artists in Pop Life. But Simpson's question (which he was able to address briefly in his article here was looking farther into art history, by a few centuries in fact and how going back to the Renaissance successful artists have had wild reputations, mingled with moneyed classes, ran large workshops allowing a Michangelo to sign works mainly produced by assistants, just as Koons, Hirst or Murakami do today.
I agreed with Mr. Simpson that this is exactly the case - the workshop model of these last, along with the elite that have the funds to commission or purchase works - is a model for artistic success we know well. What's changed of course is whose primarily spending the money on art - it's no longer the church and state so much as private entrepreneurs and business people, or the companies, foundations, even in some cases the museums they run, or at least recently bailed out, as was the case when the well known philanthropy of Eli Broad was extented to keeping both LACMA and LA MoCA afloat at the start of the current credit crunch.
The fact that the workshop model and art mingling with money goes back for centuries in the West is only part of the story. Where the broader narrative - shall we say the pre-history - for the Pop Life exhibition begins is not in the Renaissance but rather a time around the mid-19th century when French painter called Edouard Manet began his contested relationship with the official Salon and actively sought alternative venues to showcase his art and bring it directly into the public sphere. This was the case with his iconic work Nana (1877) which was refused in the Salon of 1877. Manet's solution was not to attempt to showcase the work in another art context (whether the Impressionist Salon, the "Salon des refusés" and the like) but rather in the storefront window of the fashionable Parisien boutique Giroux et cie. What did the painting depict? Well a courtesan accompanied by her gentleman caller. This is subject matter that Manet had painted before, most famously and shockingly in his Olympia (1865) in which the artist's muse Victorine Meurent appears nude, reclined on a couch in the manner of Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538-39), but in the French painter's rendition the seductive mythological woman becomes real, her gaze even confrontational. In Nana the mistress is clothed and she turns in an inviting manner. In fact, in some readings it is said that she's getting ready for her suitor to take her out, perhaps to go shopping… Back to the store window of Giroux et cie! Here's how Manet scholar Carol Armstrong Manet scholar Carol Armstrong has described this turn of events in her 2002 Yale University Press publication Manet Manette (p. 229):
"Although Manet painted Nana for the Salon, he must have recognized her shopwindow suitability, not to mention the advertising advantage of his own notoriety, which must have resonated loud and clear in Nana's evocation of Olympia. Whether the critics responded or not, people would come and stare, and even – or especially – if they were scandalized, they might enter the boutique and buy Giroux's wares. And, in the circular logic of advertisement, there would be benefit in this for Manet as well."
Here we have an instance of a number of things happening: Manet was an established painter and well recognized and connected within the bourgeoisie. But as an artist he also deliberately undermined the mores of civil society, sometimes creating shock to shift attention to subcultural aspects of the city and modern life. Manet is considered by many to be the first "modern" artist and indeed his active engagement with burgeoning cosmopolitan modern life and all its nuances and contradictions in a sometimes complimentary, often antagonistic manner set up a model for the artist throughout the twentieth century to be critical watchdog of the mainstream. It is this model that is reflected upon in Pop Life as the artists in this exhibition, beginning with Warhol and ending with Takashi Murakami don't exactly give up the role of being critical, but they do shift the parameters of how one can engage and offer alternative ways of thinking and consuming within the mainstream. Like in Manet's example of a century before, the artists in Pop Life literally take their art to the streets and the shops, and like in the reaction Manet garnered from factions of his public, they have often courted just as much sensation and controversy along the way. At the Hamburger Kunsthalle, who hold Manet's Nana in their collection, the latter work was added to their presentation – in the same room as Jeff Koons' large Made in Heaven billboard there was Manet's painting, obscured slightly through a Plexiglas screen which the museum had produced in a recreation of its original 1877 showing on the streets of Paris. To me this addition to the show was quite powerful, and reminded that the antecedents to the story in Pop Life don't begin simply in the late 70s but within the history of art going back a century, and if probed, as Peter Simpson did in his question to me, even a few centuries more.
Seems a suitable place to do so, given that that is where Warhol spend much of his time in the 70s and 80s, if not over the Atlantic then at least in airplanes heading to parts of the US, Europe and elsewhere to fulfill contracts, meet with collectors, socialize a lot I'm sure but also work, and work. Portraits were his thing for much of this period as he chronicled the famous as well as the rich who could pay the price tag attached to having their mug photographed, silkscreened and painted by the prince of Pop...
I'm not actually reading Warhol himself on the plane as I return from Germany - though this is certainly worthwhile, his 'Philosophy from A to Z' in particular to understand how he chronicled his universe of transcendent surface appearances - but rather a number of critical essays and features written on him in 1980, just after the artist's Whitney exhibition 'Portraits of the 70s' which is partially reconstructed in Pop Life. I'm preparing for media previews for Pop Life this week presented by the NGC at the gallery in Ottawa, as well as in Montreal then on to Toronto. This is where the gallery gives a peak at upcoming shows over the course of the year with the main focus this time around being the summer 'blockbuster' Pop Life. I've been going to back to a lot of the reviews of the day - on Warhol, as well as Jeff Koons, Pruitt + Early, and others in the exhibition who rose to prominence, fame and celebrity in the 80s and 90s (Warhol was well famous by then) in order to get a sense not just of what later commentators have said in reflection or in theory, but how the work of many of the artists in Pop Life entered and was received by the cultural milieu in its day.
Pop Life does an exemplary job in being true to the art historical moment over the past thirty years that is the exhibition's subject matter in order to make a case for its influence on a subsequent generation of media saavy artists. As coordinating curator for this show I've been getting an education of my own in following the footnotes, as it were, from the catalogue, as well as in my lengthy dialogue's with the show's original creators Jack Bankowsky, Alison Gingeras and Catherine Wood, as well as with the NGC's director Marc Mayer who lived in NY and was active in its cultural scene for much of the 80s and early 90s.
What is crucial to impart and for the media and public alike to understand first and foremost about this show is who is the Warhol being featured. I say this because the NGC's public knows Warhol, right? - his Brillo Boxes helped define Pop Art and have been a staple in the collection since Brydon Smith presciently acquired them a few years after their original production in 1964. The NGC also has some of Warhol's Mao portraits, a print on the Birmington Race Riots, as well as a much later portrait collage from the 80s of a very young Wayne Gretzky. It is the latter "Andy" who features in Pop Life, the Andy Warhol who was not simply parodying or replicating - in awe or in critique the jury is perennially divided - burgeoning post-War American consumer culture. There is always that Pop Warhol lurking somewhere, but by the 70s his oeuvre of pop icons were by and large entrenched and the artist himself began to recycle and resell his own established brand of art, but moreover himself, his aura, his consciously superficial essence encapsulated by his silvery frock, pale complection, aloof and detached profile that would become perhaps his biggest and most sought after trademark, his image and public persona, which from the way he knew it and groomed it was arguably his most accomplished work of art.
It seems that after being shot in 1968 Warhol shifted gears and went "uptown," as it were, and became highly professional - the Factory, his studio, went from what one critic called "a day-care center, a screamatorium, a constant happening" (where his would be shooter Valerie Solinas would hang out with what the same critic - David Bourdon - called "debs, preppies, speed freaks, the parvenus, the street people,") and in the 70s became a streamlined centre of operations for painting, printing, publishing and management. The open door policy of the Factory had ended and access was screenedthrough buzzer and security system.
At any rate, while Warhol's approach to production, (vast) reproduction, and dissemination of his work changed, his overall curiousity for life and art (which of course he blended completely) never strayed. In my reading I've discovered Warhol's admission that he was looking forward to the 80s that felt were going to be "more exciting" than the 70s. As you'll hear a lot over the coming months if you follow the leads up to Pop Life, the exhibtion introduces the vivacious, celebrity-chasing and chased, post-Pop Warhol of the 1980s as a model for how many artists hence - first Haring, then Koons, then Hirst as well as more recently the art world jokster and satirist Maurizio Cattelan and many others - have engaged the art world and mainstream directly through the channels of marketing, publicity and carefully manipulated sentationalism and notoriety of a blend of art, creative talent and persona.
You can wait until this summer to get to know the Warhol who "changed everything" in this regard (to quote from the subtitle of Louis Menand’s recent New Yorker article, Jan. 11, 2010, that you must read if you're even remotely interested in the subject I'm discussing!) But if you want to get a head start I would highly recommend Paul Gardner's essay "Gee, What's Happened to Andy Warhol" published in Artnews, November, 1980. There's also Carter Ratcliff's review of Warhol's book Andy Warhol's Exposures ("Starlust: Andy's Photos" is in Art in America, May 1980) which does a great job of showing how the artist was very calculating in his engagement with fame: "Dick Cavett but not Johnny Carson, John Lennon but not Paul McCartney." Ratcliff, you might be intrigued to note, wrote a scathing indictment of Jeff Koons’ work about a decade later - discussing his Made in Heaven collaboration with former porn-star, and the artist's former wife La Cicciolina, portions of which are exhibited in Pop Life. But I think I'll save Koons and his critics - pro and con - for another day, as I have to finish writing my press lecture (and the plane map says we're nearing St. John's so only a few hours to go). One thing is for sure, as I sift through the literature on Warhol and Koons, each were, are and remain critically divisive figures within and outside of the art world - the jury is out on where, how and what to do with Warhol's oeuvre, especially the later work, as well as Jeff Koons - he's had more than twenty years of dividing the intelligensia and public alike, meanwhile bigtime collectors line up for a piece of the art, and the action. Which I suppose for Koons, as for Warhol before him, means flying over the Atlantic and elsewhere in a year many more times than you and I will likely do in our lifetime.
Ok so I'll amend what I wrote last time about art and openings, sometimes you do have time to look at the art, which I did on Friday at the Falckenberg Collection. And I'm glad I did as I won't have the chance on this trip to get back to this vast former industrial warehouse which for this show, and I'm assuming each of three exhibitions put on here a year, is packed with art. Even in the basement there were a few pieces on view including an intriguing sculpture by Dirk Skreber, but the real treat was that the collector makes the rest of his paintings, drawings and photo collection available for people to browse on roll a racks at will.
And what a crowd again: hundreds of people of all ages out to see this show of contemporary art of varying degrees of accessibility by artists of varying degrees of fame - from paintings by Kippenberger and another German painter I quite like Norbert Schwontkowski (as well as examples of works by the artists less well known working from the 80s I mentioned in the last blog, figures like Werner Büttner, Georg Herold, and Albert Oehlen) to some fantastic collage works by Katia Kelm and Martha Rosler, to large scale installations by Mike Kelley, John Kessler and a particularly engaging piece by John Bock that had me on hands and knees crawling through a makeshift building on three claustrophobic levels. The latter reminded me of one of the most astonishing contemporary art installations I've ever experienced - a project by Christophe Büchel at a warehouse space in London, off Brick Lane, which was taken over by Hauser + Wirth gallery (H+W Coppermill) to coincide with the Frieze art fair in 2007. If there are any readers who also partook in that sprawling multi-level, multi-room art work (you had to literally dig through tunnels after signing a release waiver!) I'm certain it will have stuck with you, like it has done with me, years after the fact. It is not every work of art, contemporary or otherwise that achieves this of course, and not all do so immediately upon viewing - that lingering effect you can't shake that says I need to think about this or that more.
With Büchel's Simply Botiful it was right away, but with other artworks their power and poignancy can be more subtle. There were many installation-based projects that I saw tonight by artists I knew little or nothing about, for example, some of which I couldn't make heads or tails of over the limited span of the evening. Some I won't remember but I know I'll find myself thinking about other bits and pieces in the days and months ahead, works that knag away at the brain and psyche until I come back to piece them together more fully. It seems the curators of the show I saw tonight are aware of this, having titled their presentation with the truism "You can observe a lot by watching." Luckily in the case of this opening - in contrast to my night of productive and collegial discussions at the Kunsthalle - I had time to watch and observe. I did still manage to set up a few impromptu meetings with collectors tomorrow, however. It was a vernissage, after all.
Hello from Hamburg, Germany which weather-wise at least feels very much like Ottawa, cold and snowy. Last night at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, however, it was warm, very warm, as around 2800 people crammed in to the historic main hall of the 19th century museum for the opening of Pop Life: Art in a Material World. I was there nestled in the crowd with my coat on (the coat check was already well full) listening to the speeches by the museum’s Director Dr. Hubertus Gaβner, and Kunsthalle curators Dr. Daniel Koep and Dr. Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, wishing I’d taken those German lessons I’d been meaning too for a while! After this we all made a long walk from the original building to its newer contemporary wing, passing under Jenny Holzer’s amazing site specific snake-like rolling signboard that it was explained to me was created for the inauguration of the extension to deal with the low ceilings in the stairs that pass from one building to the next.
After this it was one more flight of stairs to the main event of the evening: Pop Life, which began with a Damien Hirst sculpture of a small calf with gold hoofs in a gold plated formaldehyde tank placed outside the entry to the show in a large atrium space. This didn’t really fit the chronology but I was told that this was their only option for placing the nearly 4 ton sculpture without risking the floors caving in! (We’re still grappling with that one at the NGC – steel plates under the floor might be the solution – wait and see).
You can’t really go to openings to actually see the art, of course, especially when there are a few thousand in attendance. I did my best but the real reason to attend such events is to catch up with colleagues, collectors and artists who may be there. To my surprise in this regard last night the German painter Daniel Richter was in attendance – I worked on his show at the National Gallery of Canada a few years ago but in fact never got to meet him as he doesn’t travel much and did not come to that opening – so I was able to talk with him and about the “Paris Bar” where Martin Kippenberger, he and other artists used to hang out (and that is a part of the history recorded in the Kippenberger section of Pop Life). There were some of those who owned the artworks there too, of course, and the Kunsthalle did a good job of bringing in some key works from collectors in Hamburg and other parts of Germany. It was a lively evening overall, the Kunsthalle has spread the show over two floors of the museum and I had a great time wandering through it all and gauging people’s reactions to the many different sections of this multifaceted show. As I write today I am just finishing off another day back at the Kunsthalle, this time to walk through the show with its organizers and some of the technical team to understand the challenges that they faced first hand, and also take in the way that they laid out the show visually.
The Kunsthalle’s presentation was different from Tate and being the third venue the NGC has the chance to take in both iterations in adapting the show to the beautiful special exhibition spaces in Ottawa. While the social aspect of attending openings makes it feel a little less like work, today was much more down to business, engaging again first hand with the content and materials of this exhibition in order to bring back answers to the many technical and interpretive questions my colleagues had and will have for me upon return. Pop Life is coming to Ottawa, and while I’ve been working on it for the better part of a year now there is nothing like seeing it again and discuss those who have just finished the prep and installation to realize that this major exhibition is really only around the corner! Lots of work to do back in Ottawa. Tonight though I’m off to another opening, this time at the Falckenberg Collection in Hamburg which I’m excited about as it apparently contains work by many of the artists featured in Pop Life, including Richard Prince and Kippenberger. In speaking with Mr. Falckenberg last night, however, I learned that he has also been collecting those artists who were reacting to the success model for artists as illustrated in Pop Life. Should be interesting, and I’ll be sure to let you know on my next update when I’m back to Canadian snow and cold!