With any luck, Birmingham’s biggest art show in 2015 won’t feel like an art show at all. Warhol: Fabricated, opening to the public on Jan. 9, captures the playfulness and irreverence of Warhol’s work in a collection of the Pittsburgh native’s prints, photographs and more that have never been exhibited together.
When it was announced in 2013 that UAB College of Arts and Science’s long-awaited art institute had received a gift of nine never-before-exhibited Andy Warhol prints to use in its collection, it was easy to see how the prints would serve as a cornerstone for a gallery space dedicated to modern and contemporary art. One year after the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts finally opened, the Warhol Foundation’s gifts have blossomed into an unforgettable exhibition.
“I wanted it to be fun, that’s the bottom line,” said AEIVA Curator John Fields, who has been planning the exhibition since last summer. “The real challenge was that, because the foundation gave out this large gift to, like, 80 different universities, there have been around 88 Warhol shows in the United States in the last 10 years. So the question becomes, how do we do a Warhol show differently?”
The answer? With panache. Warhol: Fabricated is a mammoth undertaking, featuring works across several decades of Warhol’s life, but the exhibition flows through AEIVA’s three gallery spaces with unhurried ease, beginning with a photograph of Warhol lounging on a couch by celebrated civil rights photographer Bob Adelman.
The first gallery is filled with Warhol’s Silver Clouds, which look like silver plastic pillows filled with a mixture of helium and oxygen that exhibition attendees are welcome to bounce around. Carried aloft by helium, oscillating fans and overzealous viewers, the Silver Clouds set a pointedly un-serious tone for an exhibition from America’s great pop artist.
“There’s a lot of commentary that you can read into this,” Fields said of the exhibition’s central gallery, “but it’s also got this wonderful tackiness, which is what I think of when I think of Warhol: fabulous tackiness.” The marvelously, unapologetically gaudy style of Warhol: Fabricated, which truly comes to life in the exhibition’s middle gallery, is a loving homage to its featured artist.
The Warhol Foundation’s gifts are on display in the central gallery, which is full of characteristically colorful prints from Warhol’s Factory studio. Juxtaposing portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger alongside figures like Vladimir Lenin may seem counterintuitive — in a stroke of brilliance, Fields has even set a ghoulish portrait of Richard Nixon, commissioned by the 1972 George McGovern campaign, against a wallpaper full of purple Chairman Mao images — but they reveal Warhol’s eternal fascination with icons of any kind, no matter the reason for their celebrity.
The central gallery also introduces the major theme of the show, which is the question of appropriation — a question that certainly dogged Warhol during his life. On the far wall of the gallery is a series of “Old West” prints, which feature such figures as Sitting Bull with Warhol’s trademark garishness. The images speak not only to Warhol’s appropriation of specific images, but also to America’s appropriation of Native American territory and its self-mythologizing into a simple narrative of cowboys and Indians.
The questions around Warhol expand in the show’s third gallery, which deepens Warhol’s art by featuring his screen tests and 90 Polaroid prints (gifted to UAB by the Warhol Foundation in 2008), as well as those questions of appropriation by featuring the works of artist Charles Lutz. Lutz, who will be part of a panel discussion on Warhol on the afternoon of Jan. 9, is as clear an heir to Warhol’s legacy as anyone else. A Pittsburgh native like Warhol, Lutz served as a studio assistant to controversial artist Jeff Koons before achieving his own notoriety with a show that commented directly on Warhol’s legacy.
“What he did was he recreated several Warhol pieces and sent them to have them authenticated, and of course they got stamped ‘DENIED’. When they got sent back to him, he started showing them immediately. After he got that first ‘DENIED’ stamp, he started recreating that ‘DENIED’ stamp,” Fields explained.
“His work raises so many issues about Warhol and authenticity and appropriation,” Fields continued. “He’s basically stealing Warhol’s images, who was sued hundreds of times for stealing other people’s images. He didn’t care. There was never any attempt to get permission to use these images. He appropriated whatever he felt like. The idea of how we assign value — to art, to everything — Charles’ work comments directly on that.”
Warhol is likely the most influential artist of the 20th century, not simply because of his own work, but because of the unique way he marketed both it and himself. Many Americans would be able to recognize a Norman Rockwell illustration, but couldn’t pick the artist himself out of a lineup; Warhol had no such problem. In a postmodern world, Warhol managed to connect his work’s value intrinsically with his own enigmatic, carefully crafted persona.
“He was very layered,” Fields said. “There’s that surface Warhol, where he’s obsessed with celebrity and pop culture — he was on The Love Boat, and to have a living contemporary artist reach that level of fame, it’s almost unheard of — my mom knows who Warhol is. He’s probably the most identifiable artist of the 20th century. … It’s fun to look at how much of Warhol was a persona and how much of it was the real person.
“They’re brands,” Fields said of artists like Koons and Damien Hirst, “and it’s totally modeled after Warhol.”
As stellar as the works exhibited within Warhol: Fabricated are, it’s Warhol’s lasting cultural resonance that makes the show such an event for Birmingham. With the advent of the Internet, we’re truly living in a post-Warhol age.
“I think that if he were alive, he’d totally have a YouTube channel,” Fields said of Warhol. “He’d eat social media up. He said that in the future, everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame, and that’s actually kind of possible now.”
Warhol: Fabricated explores the nuances of Warhol’s persona and cultural influence — and it was made possible, of course, by Warhol’s famously benevolent foundation — but it’s also a massive achievement for AEIVA, and by extension, Birmingham.
“I feel really proud of what we did that first year, but this Warhol exhibition shows that we’ve really got our footing, and we’re hoping from here on out that each of our shows will be of this level,” Fields said. “We’re already planning a show for 2018. … That was sort of the intent of the building all along, to be able to do these large-scale, high-profile exhibitions that we never could have done in the old space. Now that we’ve got through our first year and worked out the kinks, this is the first of many big shows.”
Let’s hope he’s right. With its potentially global profile, thoughtful arrangement and playful intersection of high and low culture, Warhol: Fabricated sets a wonderfully high bar for the rest of 2015.
For more information about Warhol: Fabricated, click here.