Friday, December 18, 2015

Art: Andy Warhol Exhibitions

Earlier this year, multiple venues participated in a Douglas Coupland exhibition that was titled "Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything", a title meant to highlight the ubiquitousness of his works.  This seems to also apply to American pop artist Andy Warhol, since there are currently dueling Warhol exhibits in progress–Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Andy Warhol: Revisited at the Revolver Gallery on Bloor St. West at Bay St.

As expected, the main focus of the exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox is on film, movie stars and the concept of celebrity as it relates to Andy Warhol. The walls are lined with photographs of celebrities that Warhol either purchased for his personal collection or shot himself.  Included is the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol used in the creation for his "Marilyn" screen prints.  Also on display is his collection of old movie posters, as well as movie posters for some of his own films.

Andy Warhol directed a series of weird, experimental films including hours of footage depicting his lover John Giorno sleeping (Sleep, 1964), Edie Sedgwick hanging out in the kitchen (Kitchen, 1965), and a stream of his famous friends visiting him in his New York film studio "The Factory" and sitting on his iconic  couch.  (Couch, 1964).  Scattered throughout the exhibition space are video screens hanging from the ceiling that run excerpts of selected films on a continuous loop.  The most quirky film is probably "Taylor Mead's Ass"–a 76 minute movie that focuses mainly on the actor's bare butt.   As the story goes, a critic complained that watching Mead's movies (including titles such as "The Queen of Sheba Meets Atom Man" and "Tarzan and Jane Regained .. Sort of") felt like hours of watching Taylor Mead's ass.  Warhol caught wind of this comment and complied by making the movie.

An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the recreation of Warhol's East 47th Street Factory film studio, which he had entirely decorated in silver including silver-toned furniture, and walls painted silver or wrapped with aluminum foil.  The colour scheme was inspired by the decor in the apartment of Warhol's friend Billy Name, and the studio came to be known as the "Silver Factory".  The one exception was a red velour couch with white cushions, where many movies were shot and parties were held.  While the actual couch was tossed when the studio closed, a reproduction has been created for this show.

Glass display cases contain Warhol memorabilia including old family photos, letters, movie props, costumes and more.  The cases are propped up by silver filing cabinets, referencing the numerous filing cabinets that were found in the Factory.  A docent-guided tour of the exhibition revealed some interesting facts about Andy Warhol, who was initially named Andrew Warhola before dropping the "a" as an adult.  He was the youngest of three children, born into a poor Czechoslovakian family who immigrated to Pittsburgh, USA.  When he was young, his mother would try to stretch out a meal by making soup out of ketchup and hot water–perhaps an experience that eventually led to his famous tomato soup can art?

The eccentric Warhol hung out at the Factory with equally strange friends and acquaintances.  Performance artist Dorothy Podber asked if she could "shoot" the five Marilyn paintings that he had just completed.  Thinking she meant to take photographs of them, Warhol acquiesced but instead, she took out a gun and shot holes through each Marilyn's forehead.  These paintings are now known as the "Shot Marilyns".  Warhol himself was shot and seriously injured in 1968 by a disgruntled female associate, feminist writer Valerie Solanis.

As you exit the show, you can choose to partake in the "Three Minute Screen Test", a ritual that Warhol frequently put his fledgling film stars through in order to ascertain their charisma on camera.  Simulating that experience, patrons are invited to sit silently for three minutes while a video camera films them.  The results are screened at the front of the exhibition and are also available for download. It is interesting to see what different people do with their three minutes. Some mug for the camera, some stare blankly, while others fidget nervously.

In the Canadian Film Reference Library on the 4th floor of the Bell Lightbox, a related free exhibit called "In Love With the Stars" is simultaneously on display.  This show features the private collections of a few avid fans that shared Andy Warhol's fascination with movie stars and celebrity.  On display is a subset of over 1000 scrapbooks collected by Edith Nadajewski over the span of 70 years from the 1920s through 1990s.  Each scrapbook includes pasted images of celebrities cut out from newspapers and magazines.  She would dedicate one or more two-page spreads on each actor, actress or movie.  A short documentary film introduces Jack Pashkovsky, a Russian, Jewish immigrant who started out sweeping floors at Twentieth Century Studios and eventually worked his way to becoming known as "The Man Who Shot Hollywood".  On display are examples of Pashkovsky's photos which captured the biggest stars of the times posing naturally for him.  He is even credited with taking the last known photo of Amelia Earhart before she disappeared.  Finally, there is a retrospective of photos taken at Toronto International Film Festival red carpets throughout the years. 

While a limited number of familiar art works related to movie stars were included in the TIFF Andy Warhol exhibit, it was not until we visited the Revolver Gallery's Andy Warhol: Revisited show that we came across a more comprehensive assemblage of Warhol's works, covering more eclectic topics that we had not seen before.  Three figures of Andy Warhol grace the window of the gallery, dressed in iconic black mock shirt and pants with their faces painted in primary colours.  Also on display are the sculptural incarnations of Warhol's obsession with commercialism and mass production–plywood boxes painted and silk-screened with common brands on them including Brillo Soap Pads, Heinz Ketchup, Kellogs Cornflakes and more.

Once inside, we see further examples of Warhol's famous sets of silk screen prints. While there are a few common-place ones of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and Elvis, most of the other subject matters are totally new to us.  For the first time, we peruse renderings of Queen Elizabeth, Vladimir Lenin, gangster John Gotti, a series of Western themed ones including General Custard and Annie Oakley, a series of commissioned "vanity" portraits of high-powered executives, and more.  In addition to the portraits, there are also sets of images of cows, shoes, trucks, camouflage patterns, and commercial products such as a Chanel perfume bottle.

Two large silver couches are placed in the middle of the gallery, which presumably refer to the "Silver Factory", even though the actual couch in that studio was red and white, as we learned in the TIFF exhibit.  A very detailed documentary on Andy Warhol is screened on two TV sets mounted on top of walls that are covered with small snapshots of the artist.  After watching the movie for over 20 minutes, we finally asked how long the documentary ran for, and found out it was 4 hours!  Even more interesting than the film are the photographs on the wall, which on closer examination depict Warhol dressed up a variety of wigs and makeup to portray different male and female personas.

Taken together, the two Andy Warhol exhibitions at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Revolver Gallery present an extensive picture of the man, his life, his works and his artistic influences and motivations.  But given how prolific and creative Warhol was, it somehow feels like we have only scratched the surface.

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