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Andy Warhol: World Icon 


Why has the art of Andy Warhol spawned so many global admirers, from Parisian curators and Perth fashion designers, to cultural affairs officers at the U.S. Department of State and fourth graders in rural Arizona?

There are many opinions, and no simple answers.

The Musée Nationale d'Arte Moderne - Centre Pompidou has recently improved its exhibition space.  The museum now greets visitors at the top of its dramatic four-story escalator, which takes you to the entrance to the galleries, with large, multiple images of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol.  This is how Paris introduces visitors, at the most spectacular modern art museum in France, to world art created after 1960.

Half-a-world away, in Vail, Arizona, a teacher in a small rural elementary school uses Warhol's art in her fourth grade class: "I chose him because he makes people think. I stress that I want them to be thinkers, not just sponges to soak up information, " she says.   She is intrigued by the way children relate to common, everyday images.  Her students were "enthralled and fascinated" that Warhol chose simple, everyday objects to paint. They were thrilled to recognize items they have in their own homes, and also see at the grocery store and on television.   She has a theory about such images:  "I told the students how my daughter, before she could even talk in sentences, knew a McDonalds's sign from a Burger King sign.  Repetition of these colorful, strong images blaze into a child's memory." 

When The Andy Warhol Museum sent her more information, she read to the class about the artist's life growing up in Pittsburgh.  The children loved the part where his mother insisted that he rest in bed when he was ill, and also seeing that Warhol's childhood hobbies were the same as their own.  In the letter she sent back to the museum, she concluded,  "I think the students have been greatly inspired and affected by this great artist of our own time."

Another opinion is that Warhol is now a global brand name, like Coca-Cola.  His name has incredible recognition.  But this goes beyond defining a product.  Coca-Cola is a beverage, but more importantly, it is a symbol.  The Warhol "brand name" symbolizes something to people all over the world.

Warhol associate curator Margery King points to the success of The Warhol Look on its international tour as evidence.  At the Whitney Museum of American Art, it broke attendance records in its  opening week. In Perth, Australia, the museum threw a party to celebrate the show--and it sold out immediately--it was one of the biggest events the museum had ever had.  In Marseilles, France, The Warhol Look drew some of the largest audiences the museum had ever seen.  King remembers how, in the fashion and design communities of these cities, the local professional designers, when contacted about the show, all volunteered to work to make it a success.

Another example of global visibility is the Andy Warhol traveling show in Eastern Europe, where in the summer of 2000, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, it opened in Budapest, Hungary, and in Thessaloniki, Greece.  In October, it opens in Moscow.   During 2001, it travels to major cities in six different countries.

The wide age range of  people who flock to the international Warhol shows is the same in the rest of the world as it is in Pittsburgh, says King.   "If you were in your thirties in the 1960s, now you are in your seventies.  But you still identify with Warhol.  To young people, Warhol represents artistic freedom.   It is a freedom to cross boundaries--to paint, to create a magazine like Interview, to express yourself through music, like that of the Velvet Underground." 

Another opinion is that Warhol is the successful model of the multi-media artist.  The photographer Cindy Sherman, a photographer, has made a film.  Gianni Versace, the fashion designer, designed books, and mounted installations. Musician Michael Stipe has become a successful film producer, and fashion designer Isaac Misrahi is beginning to focus on his acting career.

For performance artist Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. "D.J.Spooky that Subliminal Kid," Warhol  is the first true multi-media artist, and continues to inspire.  Miller performed at The Warhol in June, and in an interview on May 31 with Jordan Weeks, for Pittsburgh City Paper (vol. 10, no. 23), Miller theorized that now the issues surrounding digital media and the way different people control history make Warhol more relevant to him. "Im fascinated by how Warhol was able to create a social milieu around his art that actually gave the art a different kind of life."    Even though, "the Warhol scene was operating in 50s and 60s America of ultra-conservative stuff, he was able to slip in such subversive, strange things, that hes now viewed as an establishment figure, which is really hilarious, you know?"

Another reason is that Warhol explores the multiple perceptions, and fictions, with which everyone perceives objects, and people. Today everyone is dealing with a constructed persona, says Miller, whether youre looking at a politician, or musician, or visual artist.  Miller himself explores how people create a sense of personal fiction: "Andy always called himself a mirror, and to me, art and music are two different kinds of mirrors that you can hold up to the world around you, just to see how people are living and breathing.  And were such a hyper-mediated culture at this point, that AOL comes with about eight pre-set personalities."

Museum director Thomas Sokolowski offers another opinion:"Warhol  is the greatest post-production artist of our time."   This reflects Warhol's marketing and spin-doctor's skills, which he brought to a fine point while working for eleven years as a commercial artist in New York City.  Stephen Spielberg and  Martin Scorcese make great films, but they realize their films do not exist until they are marketed, packaged, taken on the road, and talked about. In this sense media spin transcends the importance of the art itself.  You may make the best soap, but you have tell people about it and prove it.

On the other hand, says Sokolowski, "It is not necessarily good that spin doctors influence so much of the way the world works today."  And there is something greater about Warhol than his being a recognizable artist who effectively marketed his own work. There is an enigma about Warhol, and it is hard to put your finger on what he does. 

"The late Beatles' songs now sound corny--but Warhol's messages are not corny today, like the Beatles' songs."   Sokolowski  says that when we look today at the art of Jasper Johns or Frank Stella we are looking at the mature art of  contemporaries of Warhol's, but these works do not strike us as hot, or new, or masterpieces,  the way his work does. 

Sokolowski believes Warhol somehow finds a transcendent moment in his subjects. As an artist he has found a point of levitation between a subject's being of the moment and also being a timeless masterpiece. The Liz Taylor in the print could be Liz today, although we know the actual actress is now older and looks very different.  "Warhol has found the transcendent moment, and captured Liz Taylor's all-enduring beauty as that of a great goddess--like Nefertiti--she is timeless and time-sensitive, simultaneously."  This ability to transcend the moment and connect to art somehow makes everybody respond. 

Certainly, other great modern artists worked in many different media.  Sokolowski thinks of Picasso.  "We saw him living in the world, but we were not privy to him, his wives, children, meetings.  There was a heroic quality to his everyday life, and it was absolutely parallel to his role in the studio.  But today he is a more abstract person."   But Warhol's symbols were the concrete images of daily life: a cross, a gun, a can of soup, Marilyn Monroe.

Jean Cocteau was another multi-media artist of his own time. He created poems and plays, drawings and paintings, stage-sets and mural designs, and films, in addition to collaborating with artists like Picasso.  The Warhol is planning an exhibition of Cocteau's many-faceted work for theis fall.  But, says Sokolowski, "He was not as transcendent as Warhol, although, like Warhol he was very much part of a large circle of musicians, artists, and dancers."  His critics, like Warhol's,  saw him as a dilettante dabbling in different media,  but also as a writer and filmmaker who made a great impact on the visual arts.

One conclusion about Warhol's rise to global acclaim is that even in a media-saturated world it takes time for the world to get a handle on someone who is active in a dozen ways.  Pop art is decades old, but it is now a revelation to people in the countries of the former Soviet Union.  In New York, the Museum of Radio and Television is planning an exhibition of Warhol's video work.   This subject, new for the New York museum, will call attention to the resources of The Andy Warhol Museum. 

"We are the center and source of Andy Warhol scholarship, and the distribution of his films, " says Sokolowski. "We see ourselves as the center of Warholiana, with the largest holdings anywhere, and the greatest compendium of Warhol materials.  We are the first place people around the world will click on, to discover more about Warhol."

 

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