Andy Warhol is one of the most celebrated artists of the twentieth century. His famous works had the effect of conferring iconic status on consumer goods and beautiful celebrities. At the same time, Warhol underwent his own personal transformation. From an unknown immigrant family, he became the subject of controversy, revelry and general intrigue. Other voices, other rooms explores the workings of an artist that became so obsessed with celebrity, yet when he was placed centre stage always chose to remain on the periphery as an observer: an outsider looking in.
The exhibition begins in the room titled Cosmos which provides a glimpse of the various media and techniques with which Warhol worked. What is most apparent is the vast scope of his work; from drawing to paint, film to photo, Warhol’s creativity incorporated many media. What pervades the room most fervently is Warhol’s predominant obsession with celebrity that he came to groom and perfect. Large screens hang from the ceiling while silent film portraits of actors, singers and performers fill the blank space. His muse, Edie Sedgwick, is the most prominent. As she tries to sit still without blinking her vulnerability and innocence dominates the picture. Hung above the eye level of the viewer the recorded stills became untouchable adding to the creation of celebrity. While the characters flitter and vacantly stare into nothing, hundreds of Polaroid photos fill glass cases. From Debbie Harry to Liza Minelli, OJ Simpson to Jimmy Carter with Sylvester Stallone; this is the ultimate fortress with the rich and famous trapped behind the frame of the photo or the movement of the lense. The exhibition reveals the power of the media, how we propel humans into becoming living gods and the expectations we place on essentially ordinary people.
From 1979 to 1987, Warhol made a total of 42 television programmes for cable TV stations in New York for the new music channel MTV. These shows highlight Warhol’s love of gossip, fashion and music, and the idea that irreverence and small things are the key to understanding the human pysche. While TV- Scape voyeurs into the world of celebrity, Factory Diaries reveal the world of Warhol and his different stages of production. Responding to one of his critics, he said: ‘our movies may have looked like home movies, but then our home wasn’t like anybody else’s’. With guest appearances by John F. Kennedy and David Bowie these recordings shed new light on an artist who created his own, exclusive culture.
Warhol’s own words and sayings litter the room. During an interview the artist said ‘it’s too hard to look in the mirror. Nothing’s there’. This is ironic for a man so obsessed with aesthetics who cannot bring himself to face his own image. In fact, this was typical Warhol; a man at odds with himself whose most complicated creation was his own persona. As well as photographing himself straight and in drag, he also recorded his scarred torso after he was shot by Valerie Solanas. When Andy Warhol became a household name in the 1970s he maintained a position of observer rather than participant, and never allowed interviewers to know too much.
In the five years between 1963 and 1968 film became Warhol’s most important
medium. Filmscape presents the most comprehensive selection of Warhol films ever shown in a single exhibition; 19 films are playing simultaneously. While some of the images are slightly disturbing, Blow Job, others are lighthearted, Miss Warhol and some are motionless. Once again the image of Edie Sedgwick in Outer and Inner Space invites a sense of imprisonment. As the camera rolls Warhol manipulates his characters, as they become tools which he used and then discarded. Yet he seems to capture very human moments in between performance and impression. The stark and vacant image of Sedgwick when her facial muscles relax and her smile disappears is one that sticks with the viewer.
The setting and the positioning of the films is at first inviting but after one has viewed several showings it becomes too surreal, disturbing and claustrophobic. The exhibition leads up to this moment, and the climax is suffocating. It is as though one is inside Warhol’s mind and it is a relief to leave.
From photos to films, these works reveal Warhol’s eccentricities and more so a deep insecurity. As his art attempts to delve into the celebrated world of the other, it reveals more about himself and his problematic relationship with sex, death, money, power, success and failure. All of these themes together with his creativity came together to create a delusion and superficiality that Warhol guarded and treasured with reverence. In 1968 he said ‘before I was shot I always suspected I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot, and ever since, I knew that I was watching television’.