Becoming Andy Warhol at UCCA Edge
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The first thing that strikes you upon walking through UCCA Edge's latest exhibition in Shanghai, Becoming Andy Warhol (6 November 2021–6 March 2022), is the exhibition design: brightly coloured paint finishes; vibrant, neon-coloured reproductions hung as wallpapers; stainless steel tread plate floors, and silver everything.
Exhibition view: Becoming Andy Warhol, UCCA Edge, Shanghai (6 November 2021–6 March 2022). Courtesy UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.
The intention, of course, is that as visitors enter, they experience a sanitised approximation of being inside Warhol's infamous Silver Factory, encountering the excitement sans celebrities, drug culture, and sex, which sets the tone for what follows.
The maximalist exhibition design, provided by designer Xiaoxi Chen, is a major feature. It's the kind of immersive environment that plays especially well to the Shanghai audience, who have a particular love of art installations that make great backgrounds for selfies.
Billed as the 'first comprehensive exhibition of Andy Warhol staged to date in China,' the exhibition presents nearly 400 works from the collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, many of them not seen in China previously.
An amount that is nevertheless outnumbered by Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, that was held at Shanghai's Power Station of Art in 2013, which boasted more than 400 pieces, including sketches, sculpture, and films.
But size doesn't necessarily equate to a better experience. Where Becoming Andy Warhol outshines its Shanghai predecessor is in the depth of scholarship that supports it, and the usually unseen ephemera scattered throughout the show, particularly the material relating to Warhol's early life, family, and commercial career.
A selection of new material and scholarship has become available since the exhibition at Power Station of Art, particularly American art critic Blake Gopnik's biography, Warhol: A Life as Art, published just last year, and no doubt influential on the curatorial interpretation of the show.
There are five thematic areas. In 'Origins', we are introduced to the artist as a youth, his immigrant family— particularly his mother—and his working-class background in Pittsburgh. We follow his early success as a commercial artist, his move to New York, and his first dabbling with Pop.
As with the shopfront displays, many of the photographs will be unfamiliar to even knowledgeable fans of the artist...
Reconstructions of some of his shopping mall storefront displays, something not seen in previous Warholian exhibitions, are especial highlights, including an intriguing mix of hand-drawn illustrations on timber façades that seem to anticipate 1970s street art for Bonwit Teller, a famous department store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
'Warhol the Photographer' presents a plethora of his photographs from the period, including polaroids of his contemporaries that were the source material for many of his silkscreen portraits; among them, Tina Chow, Cher, Henry Kissinger, and a youthful Donald Trump.
As with the shopfront displays, many of the photographs will be unfamiliar to even knowledgeable fans of the artist, and they provide a more intimate view of the young Warhol exploring the formal qualities of shoes, flowers, and easter eggs, as well as a developing focus on celebrity.
'Cinema as Object' presents more than 24 newly remastered works, including 'Screen Tests' of figures such as Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, and Salvador Dali; the iconic and divisive films Empire and Sleep (both 1964); as well as experimentations in television production from the 1980s.
In 'Warhol Remixed', Warhol reinterprets earlier material for the new image-making period of the 1980s,including early Campbell's material, the Brillo boxes, and his iconic Coca-Cola prints. There are also updated versions of the celebrated Marilyn Monroe prints, in Warhol's characteristic flattened, screen-print style.
The last section of the exhibition, 'The Immaterial', explores Warhol's late turn towards abstraction and conceptual art at the end of his life.
Dealing with the painful results of his shooting at the hands of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, he began an attempt to fuse the spiritual and conceptual. Given Warhol's ill health, images like Skull (1976), a flattened silkscreen memento mori, reverberates with melancholic meaning.
This section also includes self-portraits from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including one of himself from the 'Myths' series (1981), in which he attempted to create contemporary icon images of popular culture figures.
Sadly missing from the exhibition are Warhol's 'Last Supper' paintings (1986) that included more than one hundred interpretations of Da Vinci's original. As the last body of work that Warhol made, produced in the years preceding his death, this would have completed this exhibition's circle while acknowledging Warhol's Catholicism.
While recent scholarship has elucidated Warhol's sexuality and celebrated his queerness, his devout Catholicism is much less known of, yet he attended church, met Pope John Paul II, and funded his nephew's education in seminary school.
Appreciating Warhol's embrace of spirituality at the end of his life depends on understanding his origins. With that in mind, Becoming Andy Warhol fills in the details of Warhol's early years, but his later years are yet to be fully illuminated. —[O]