The Brandhorst collection has the greatest works by Andy Warhol from anywhere outside the USA. The "Forever Young" exhibition brings home just how important the artist remains – even today.
Andy Warhol is everywhere these days. His soup cans are on the walls of flat-shares as much as in private homes, while Warhol prints are on sale in every poster shop and at IKEA. His well-known statement that everyone could be famous for 15 minutes is cited daily. And of course Kim Kardashian loves Warhol. With so much exposure, a certain amount of fatigue is sure to creep in. Can Warhol really still surprise us today? This was the question that the Museum Brandhorst (Brandhorst Museum)had to grapple with. It holds the biggest collection of Warhol works outside the USA. With 43 works, Warhol is also the most-represented artist in the current "Forever Young" exhibition which marks the museum's tenth anniversary. Works by a total of 46 artists are on show.
Patrizia Dander is chief curator at the Brandhorst Museum, and played a big part in putting the anniversary exhibition together. How does she see the ubiquitous artist following this intensive involvement? "He is of course the most famous artist in our collection, and probably one of the most famous of the 20th century. But it's not just about popularity. A huge part of what art deals with today begins with Warhol. And not least, he pre-empted many of the debates of the current day“, says Dander. Warhol is like a tentacle - even today, he still simply finds his way in everywhere. Warhol's artistic significance comes impressively to the fore in the "Forever Young" exhibition. His works dealing with homosexuality, racism and capitalism are still highly relevant today.
Naked bodies are everywhere these days – at least those that are patently heterosexual. The LGBT scene still needs to take to the streets to fight for their sexuality. Such involvement is often termed "identity politics". This means the existence of individuals or a group takes on a political stance – generally to fight for recognition. The private sphere – the person's own intimate life – has a decidedly political dimension in relationships in which sexuality is still normalised.
Although non-heterosexual lifestyles were no longer illegal in the USA by 1975, they were far from openly welcomed in public. So when Warhol took (mostly coloured) drag queens from their night clubs and into his studio to photograph them and create colourful silkscreens for his "Ladies and Gentlemen" series, it was a deliberate political statement. Because Warhol allowed them to pose in front of the camera exactly as they wished. Warhol, himself a homosexual for whom self-portrayal was a life-long subject, was reflected in this opposite.
"But then pink camouflage is of course anything but a camouflage pattern, it's quite the opposite: It is gaudily bright. A contradiction and a post-modern play between the symbol and the statement."
The interesting thing about Warhol is the complexity that shows in completely different approaches to topics. Where "Ladies and Gentlemen" makes a very clear statement, the 1983 work "Camouflage" is more closed and cryptic. In this work, Warhol, who also always had a big interest in fashion, applied a camouflage pattern on canvas, yet one colour – a sort of neon orange/pink – is gaudily bright. A fashion statement if you will, that pre-empted the military look that was to dominate the later rave scene by more than a decade.
But there is more to the work. The author Katja Eichinger has an intimate knowledge of Warhol's work and clearly interprets "Camouflage" in a homosexual context in a guest contribution for the Brandhorst Museum: "Pink undermines the military seriousness of the camouflage and so calls the power of the armed forces into question. The soldier turns "camp". And of course it is also a statement that acts as a reminder that gays still often had to hide themselves away on a day-to-day basis – and sometimes still have to today. But then pink camouflage is of course anything but a camouflage pattern, it's quite the opposite: It is gaudily bright. A contradiction and a post-modern play between the symbol and the statement."
Warhol's interest in sexual identities beyond the norm was reflected not least in the team of people that he brought together in his studio, The Factory. Many of his employees lived an openly gay and often eccentric life. These alternative lifestyles can be seen in the photographs taken by the artist Richard Avedon in The Factory in the 1970s, or Michel Auder's film footage. Warhol was ahead of his time in this too. The blend of private life and art production was later continued by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, as an example, who created portraits of members of the rave scene in the 1990s (which are also on display in the "Forever Young" exhibition, along with insights into The Factory) and discovered the utopia of a free collective. This takes place in a direct extension of Warhol's play with the boundaries of day-to-day life and art.
One of the most disturbing images in the "Forever Young" exhibition is Warhol's silkscreen "Mustard Race Riot" (1963). It is part of the "Death and Disaster" series, in which Warhol dealt with newspaper reports that dominated the media at the time. The work depicts white police officers with truncheons and vicious dogs setting about black civil rights campaigners demonstrating peacefully in a park in Birmingham, Alabama. Warhol mounted the images on top of each other, repeatedly, and thus intensified the violence; the picture's dirty mustard yellow colour is also oppressive. Warhol tackles many different issues in this work: for example the question of which images circulate publicly and what effect this has. Last but not least, for Warhol it's about depicting the blatant violence of the police in all its horror.
"These press images, which first appeared in Life Magazine, had a massive influence on understanding of the concerns of the civil rights movement in the USA," says Patrizia Dander. "Warhol followed the movement very actively." The whole thing drew attention to grass-roots racism in the USA – long before it became socially acceptable in art. Decades later, when the black artist Arthur Jafa from the southern states of the USA called his famous self-portrait "Monster" (it hangs next to Warhol's work in the exhibition), portraying himself as a black subject, but also clearly pointing to continuing discrimination with his ascription "Monster", it was of course in a very different context: Jafa himself experienced racist discrimination against his own body. As a homosexual, Warhol also knew what it was like to experience discrimination, but his handling of racism was purely theoretical. Jafa openly condemns, Warhol just points the finger. But what they have in common is that they both refer to a phenomenon that is unfortunately still a hot topic today.
"Warhol trained as a commercial illustrator, and learned about the capitalist world of images from the bottom up. His first exhibition was in a department store."
Another of Warhol's big topics is no less socially and politically explosive: he looks at money and commodity fetishism in the art market. This complex, where each year new record prices are paid for art, and many works disappear as objects of speculation into safes in duty-free regions, is today more controversial than ever. Warhol was electrified by the art market. "He was a completely fascinated by capitalism," says Patrizia Dander. "He trained as a commercial illustrator, and learned about the capitalist world of images from the bottom up. His first art exhibition was in a department store."
The confrontation with value recurs throughout Warhol's entire work. He created silkscreens from bank notes and deliberately drove up prices for his own works. "One reason why he watched this whole issue of capitalism so closely was of course the art market itself," says Dander. "In the 1950s, he experienced the price explosion in abstract expressionists, namely work by artists such as Jackson Pollock." In 1978, Warhol engaged in a subsequent caustic conflict, in the truest sense, with the extremely successful artists of the previous generation.
He created the work "Oxidation Painting", better known as "Piss Painting". The name says it all, because what at first glance looks like an abstract expressionist work was created using urine which Warhol applied in minute detail to a large format surface made from copper powder. The work is of course a malicious comment: on once-celebrated abstract expressionism at the heart of which were wild movements wiggling on the canvas – and on the art market which even today is all-too-ready to pay top dollar for any sort of excrement. "Yet despite these comments, the "Oxidation Painting" is a carefully constructed work in which Warhol tackles composition in the abstract," says Dander. "And once again we see: there is always endless depth to every Warhol work."
This realisation: that there is so much more to every work by Warhol than what you first see and believe you are seeing, that the man in the silver wig is still relevant and open to interpretation today – and that realisation still has the power to surprise.