The Art Gallery of Ontario is betting on a blockbuster Andy Warhol retrospective to entice audiences back following a nine-month pandemic induced closure.
The aptly titled “Andy Warhol” exhibition, which opened to AGO members Wednesday, aims to bring biographic and cultural context to one of the most recognizable and divisive iconoclasts of the 20th century. Through 250 art works and ephemera, including a trio of Warhol’s infamous wigs and the manifest from his mother’s arrival at Ellis Island, “Andy Warhol” makes the argument that its subject is, as Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Modern Art puts it, “due for a reassessment.”
Pointedly, “Andy Warhol” casts its subject as a product of circumstance. The first half of the exhibition is devoted to establishing Warhol’s working-class bona-fides: his humble upbringing as a child of Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh, moving to New York to work on commercial and advertising art before establishing himself as a figurehead of the counterculture. In contrast, the latter half moves beyond the biographical into Warhol’s obsession with mortality and religion, a perspective made all the more visceral when he was shot in 1968 by the feminist author Valerie Solanas (Solanas also shot art critic Mario Amaya, who happened to be at Warhol’s studio at the time and would, the following year, become the chief curator at the AGO).
Presented across a massive section of the Gallery (twice the typical floor space to allow for physical distancing), the exhibition reframes the Pop Art Svengali by spotlighting some of Warhol’s lesser-known works while postulating that, as the homosexual son of poor Catholic immigrants, he was uniquely positioned to become the eminent art world translator of American culture.
To achieve this vantage point, the exhibition fleshes out the artist’s work as pointedly flawed and acerbic rather than the sleek, machine-like superficial mirror that has become the artist’s modern caricature. As such, seminal pieces including 1962’s “Marilyn Diptych” and 1964’s “Jackie Triptych” are presented couched in Warhol’s macabre obsessions and Catholic guilt, while the lesser seen “Ladies and Gentlemen” series, in which Warhol was commissioned to create portraits of New York’s Latin and African-American drag queens and trans women, is given pride of place, bluntly asking the viewer to confront the necropolitics of the work, both of its time and of modern day.
“We want to take Warhol as we understand him and make him strange again,” Brummel, who curated the AGO presentation following its debut last year at the Tate Modern in London, explains. “Our goal is to enrich understanding of Warhol as this bifurcated figure; more than a myth with a past.”
In parallel, the AGO presentation subtly points out Warhol’s ties to both the gallery and the city. This connection is brought to bear via a selection of works exclusive to the Toronto stop, including multiple commissioned portraits of the ballet superstar Karen Kain and, fetchingly, a neon Wayne Gretzky, whose placement in juxtaposition to “Oxidation Painting” (which Warhol created by coating a canvas with wet copper paint and getting his friends to urinate on it) serves as a commentary on the artist’s own fraught relationship with celebrity, commerce and the art world.
Moreover, by purposely positioning the retrospective in divergence with the polished colourful imagery and pithy quotables that have come to define Warhol as a pop culture figure, Brummel says he hopes it will help salvage the artist’s reputation as a precursor for the disposable nature and lavish absurdisms of modern art.
“The reality is every good painter has to reckon with the cult of admiration,” he says, pointing to the late-era series, “Stitched Photographs,” in which the artist toyed with his own authenticity by stitching a series of reprinted photographs together to form a repeated pattern. “And Warhol was a formidable precursor.”
In the works since 2017, “Andy Warhol” had been intended to debut at the AGO in March of 2021 and joined exhibitions across the sector and around the world which had been delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic.
According to CEO Stephan Jost, while it undoubtedly caused a number of logistical and financial headaches, the pandemic also allowed for something all too rare in the field: a moment to reflect.
Speaking during a brief interview under a posthumous self-portrait of Warhol, Jost explains that over the past year he “learned to stop talking and listen.”
“[The pandemic] allowed us to ask ourselves what are we actually doing and why are we actually doing this? That’s framed as an existential question, but it actually reminded people why they do what they do,” he says. “What I discovered was, on a basic level, we’re doing fine and that’s because everybody, from the night guards to our board, pulled their weight. That gives you a lot of confidence”
In addition, Jost says the break gave the heads of many of the city’s cultural organizations a chance to retrench and consider how best to reinvigorate what has been one of the hardest hit sectors.
“We used to meet maybe quarterly and now it’s every two weeks,” he says of the group, which includes representatives from the National Ballet, Harbourfront Centre, Canadian Opera Company and Soulpepper Theatre. “We’re all trying to figure it out and it’s actually been great to find a common learning.”
As for the near future, Jost says he’s excited for the gallery to come “roaring back,” beginning with the Warhol exhibition, which runs until Oct. 24, to be joined by, beginning Oct. 9, a blockbuster exhibition focusing on Picasso’s Blue Period.
“It’s the best exhibition schedule the AGO has ever had,” Jost exclaims. “We want to be all in on culture.”
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