What would Andy Warhol think of now? The fame-seeking contestants on Big Brother, the cut-out-and-keep pop stars that emerge from X-Factor, the Heat/OK/Now/New magazine phenomenon that dominates the news- stands? Today’s celebrity-obsessed culture was virtually created by his vision. Warhol pre-empted the future simply by responding to the time and environment he was living in. He wasn’t just a trendsetter, he was a trend – and one that shows no sign of going out of fashion.
With hindsight, it’s hard to believe that when Andy Warhol stepped into the ’s New York art scene many critics refused to accept him as an important artist and criticised him for being too “cool”, too “media” (attributes that are now celebrated in a contemporary artist). He left a legacy that has never been matched – there is contemporary art, and then there is Andy Warhol. He created the idea of “artist as brand” by using brands. He became an icon by placing himself next to icons and, as his studio became an increasingly trendy place to hang out and began to fill with a ready-made cast, he turned it into a live film set and hit “record”. Warhol insisted he wasn’t making an ironically superficial statement about popular culture – he genuinely wanted everything to be about the surface. This is why he divided opinion; he made work that appeared to lack depth, but the way that he made it had the power to stop art history in its tracks. His subjects were commonplace and quotidian, but they were also high-profile and visually engaging, each very carefully selected and (re)presented. If his subject matter was throwaway, his aesthetic judgment was not. Formally, his art follows the “rules” of minimalism: he uses clean lines and grids, repeats images in different colourways, and allows accidents in the process to characterize individual works.
There is a general opinion that Warhol’s films were his greatest artistic achievement. He used “real” people rather than actors; employed filmic devices that contrasted with the fly-on-the-wall approach and made films that involved limited, if any, plot or dialogue. When asked why he switched from paintings to films Warhol simply answered. “It’s easier to do it than painting.” His decisions about how to make his films impacted on the art world but also filtered through into mainstream culture. As time has passed, Warhol’s back catalogue continues to generate ideas. Even Will Young’s highly polished promo for ‘Light My Fire’ was an homage to Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick, directed in the style of Ciao Manhattan. If Warhol was making serious art about trashy subjects then things have now definitely turned full circle.
Most people you speak to say they “got” Warhol after seeing a particular work or show. For me it was after I saw his screen tests at the ICA in . Until then I had had difficulty appreciating film and video art in the sense that I struggled to separate it from the experience of watching television – there was always an expectation that I should be “entertained”. With Warhol’s screen tests there was no question – they instantly justify the medium they were made in. Most of the 500 orso, roughly four-minute-long films involve little direction so there are similarities in what you see in terms of composition and lighting, but differences in how his various subjects responded – displaying different shades of anxiety, confrontation or nervousness. Warhol’s style of filming – stark lighting, then projecting back at a slower speed – flattered his subjects to the point where it didn’t matter who they were. Their function was to demonstrate the aesthetic potential of film to create a four-minute, living “portrait”. The fact that you are watching, say, a young Lou Reed or Dennis Hopper only adds to the experience. The best thing about them, like many of his films, is you can walk in at any point and zone into them straight away. The screen tests made sense to me because I was able to read them instantly and once I got Warhol, I found it difficult to look at anything he made and not find it interesting.
Warhol’s artistic legacy is about more than artists sharing a similar aesthetic or attitude towards their work. He stretched the boundaries of what was considered art, how an artist could approach making work and exhibiting, and how an artist’s own image could be integral to the work they made. Warhol’s legacy is the enormous freedom this has given to the artists who came after him.
GEMMA DE CRUZ