The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester is currently the home of an exhibition of works by the preeminent twentieth century artist, Andy Warhol. The collection focuses on Warhol’s stance on death, politics, America, and Identity following being shot and pronounced dead in 1968 by feminist author Valerie Solanas.
Although intrigued, I have never been a fan of Warhol’s work; a mindset based mainly around conflicting ideas of materialism, consumerism, and fame. However, this exhibition appealed to me because of how a near death experience had altered his view on these aspects of his life.
What I found at the Whitworth gave me an entirely new respect for the man I thought I could never agree with. The work was evocative; paintings almost criticised American consumerism and politics and ideas of death were presented in a way I felt I could sympathise with more; a kind of mutual fear and respect for death.
The gallery opens onto a photograph taken by Richard Avedon of Warhol’s scarred torso, which sets the tone and adds context to the theme. I felt like this picture was a valuable demonstration of ‘staring death in the face’ and paves the road, hypothetically speaking, for the works that follow.
In place the most famous of Warhol’s art, such as the Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe pop series, which showcase consumerism and infamy as something to be adored, are large prints of hamburgers and guns; as a mockery to American culture and politics. While the style is very much still distinctly recognisable, large colourful prints of dollar symbols criticise the materialism that he once so embraced.
The prints of the revolvers are particularly revealing of his state of mind in the years following his shooting, and even up to his death in 1987. The 1981 print depicts the same revolver as the one used by Solanas in the shooting 4 years previously which suggests that he was still scarred by the psychological effects of the incident; the physical effects of which would impact him for the rest of his life. This image could also be seen as an analysis of the instrument which can end human life so instantly and yet is so commonplace throughout the homes and lives of Americans.
Arguably the most expressive work in the gallery is a print of a 1953 press photograph of the electric chair used to execute Julius and and Ethel Rosenberg for passing information to Russia about the atomic bomb. The grain of the photograph was recreated by transferring the photograph to the canvas with glue, and then printing over it; thus allowing the paint to hit the canvas but not the glued areas. This Electric Chair Series was created in 1971, at a time where there was a great deal of political unrest in America about the use of capital punishment, again allowing us to speculate on the opinions Warhol held about America. On the reproductive nature of printing, Warhol has said, ’When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an effect’ (quoted in G.R. Swenson, ‘“What is Pop Art?” Interviews with Eight Painters’, Art News, November 1963, p.61).
Overall, I felt a rather strong connection to the revised thought process that Warhol was scarred with following the shooting. I found a new appreciation for an artist that almost turned on the society that nurtured him into a celebrity and bought into ideals which he advertised so meticulously. Of course, the world will always see images of brightly coloured celebrities and soup cans when they hear Warhol’s name, but from now on I can also refer to the works of an artist shaken by death.