Sending Andy Warhol 1956-1986: Mirror of His Time to Japan

At right: Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick in front of the Empire State Building, 1964. David McCabe. The Andy Warhol Museum. Gift of the artist.

In 1956 Andy Warhol took a trip around the world. It was the first time he had travelled abroad, and his first foreign port of call was Japan. The trip evidently had a great effect on the young and as-yet unknown artist, as the sketchbooks that he filled during his travels attest. Now, 40 years later, the Andy Warhol Museum has organized the first large retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol's work to be seen in Japan.

Andy Warhol 1956-1986: Mirror of His Time opened at the vast new Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo on April 17, and the exhibition attracted over 125,000 visitors during its run through June 23. Over 7,000 people saw it on its last day, breaking attendance records at the Tokyo museum. The exhibition is travelling to the Fukuoka Art Museum in Fukuoka, and to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art in Kobe through November 17.

The exhibition presents a wide range of Warhol's work over a 30-year period, including his Japanese travel sketchbooks from 1956, through to great late works such as a Self-Portrait and the pink Last Supper from 1986, which has been on exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum since it opened in 1994. Some 150 paintings and 50 drawings from The Andy Warhol Museum's collections are included in the exhibit, as are groups of photographs from Nat Finkelstein, Billy Name and David McCabe, each of whom documented Warhol's Factory during the 1960s. The exhibition also contains some of Warhol's greatest works, which were loaned by private collectors and museums in the United States, Europe and Japan. Among these are the Marilyn Diptych from the Tate Gallery in London; a large Electric Chair from the Menil Collection in Houston; a hand-painted Dick Tracy from a private collection in New York; a rare colored Mona Lisa from a private collection; the famous group of 32 Campbell's Soup Cans from Warhol's first Ferus Gallery exhibition in 1962, lent by Irving Blum; and the exceptional turquoise Marilyn painting, lent by Stefan Edlis of Chicago.

Such a large travelling exhibition is a complex undertaking which takes years of planning. I first suggested the idea of a large Warhol exhibition in Japan to my friend and colleague Fumio Nanjo back in 1991. Nanjo is an independent curator and had served on the advisory committee of the Carnegie International exhibition in 1991. Nanjo brought in the Asahi Shimbun, the large and highly respected newspaper and television company, as co-organizer of the project with us.

In Pittsburgh, the scale of the undertaking became apparent to a group of Carnegie Centennial patrons when the Warhol Museum hosted a special "preview" of all the huge packing crates being prepared on the top floor of the museum prior to being sent to Japan. Cheryl Saunders, the museum registrar, and Ellen Baxter, paintings conservator, explained all the behind-the-scenes intricacies of their work in organizing the shipment.

In Japan, because of the relatively recent growth of museums, it has been traditional for decades for newspaper companies to organize exhibitions. Akio Obigane, representing the Asahi Shimbun's Cultural Projects Division, became my principal partner in this enterprise, and he proved to be a highly effective and energetic curator, taking responsibility at the Japanese end not only for the arrangements of the exhibition itself, but also for a beautifully produced catalogue, an hour-long television documentary, and other aspects. Together, we collaborated closely with curators in three museums in Tokyo, Fukuoka and Kobe. (One of the unexpected difficulties in planning this project was the earthquake which destroyed large parts of Kobe and the surrounding region in early 1995. The museum was quickly rebuilt as part of the city's renovations.)

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, Japan's most important city-owned museum, had little space to exhibit its contemporary collections, and so the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo was created in Kiba Park, in the eastern part of the city. The curators there, Kunio Yaguchi and Junichi Shioda, have ambitious plans for the museum and worked closely with us to present Warhol's work in the best possible way. The building itself is a great fortress of modern design, costing over $500 million to erect, an impressive sum even considering the high land values and construction costs in the city of Tokyo.

At the exhibition opening in April, we were pleased to host lenders Irving and Jackie Blum, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, Vincent Fremont and Tim Hunt from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; David McCabe the photographer; and John Cale, one of the founding members of the Velvet Underground rock group, who played a moving solo concert in the open-air courtyard of the Tokyo museum.

Some of us were also able to travel for a few days in Japan after the opening, seeing the extraordinary historical sites and Zen gardens and temples in Kyoto, and the spectacular contemporary art museum, Benesse House, designed by the architect Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima.

Japan in the 1990s presents a landscape of extraordinary contrasts, from great modern cities with millions of inhabitants, to sublime and contemplative natural and spiritual spaces. In the midst of the dramatic developments which have transformed Japanese culture since the 1940s, American music, movies, sports and fashion have become enormously influential. No person or event has had a greater influence in this process than Andy Warhol. He is synonymous with the popular culture which is now so pervasive internationally, and nowhere more so than in Japan. It is surely appropriate that Pittsburgh's most famous native son should be presented in Japan by the museum that bears his name.

Mark Francis is the curator of The Andy Warhol Museum