Sometimes, when you stand in front of a painting, it’s like being in the presence of a celebrity. Some works – the ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Starry Night’, ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ – are so famous, so ubiquitous, so a part of our world’s cultural fabric that actually seeing them feels unreal, uneasy, magical.
This show is full of those celebrities. Stacks of soup cans, piles of boxes of Brillo pads, dozens of Marilyns, repeated Elvises. You already know these works by Andy Warhol: you can’t not, they’re inescapable. They’re on tote bags and T-shirts, on posters and magazine covers. They’re so famous that it’s hard to remember what any of them means, or even what Andy Warhol means. And this show wants to change that.
It starts with his family’s immigration card to the US and early drawings of handsome men. Here’s this queer child of immigrants trying to figure out his place in a society that’s designed to be hostile to him. And he doesn’t just figure it out, he triumphs over it.
So you stumble across those soup cans and Marilyns; then a silver-walled recreation of his Factory and a room of big silver balloons for you to play with, then his paintings of Mao and Debbie Harry. But what this show really tries to do is present Warhol as a political, experimental, neurotic, sexual being: something more than just headlines and bright colours. There’s his blood-red self-portrait from the year before he died, gaunt and haunted; there are hyper-sexual nude photos of young men recruited from gay bathhouses; there’s his gorgeous series of images of trans women and drag queens, awash with blurs of yellow blue and orange – little primary colour celebrations of marginal identities.
But the real perspective-shifter is in the room of Pop Art classics, because next to Elvis and Marilyn and the Coke bottles is a brutal vision of bodies in a car crash, shocking images of race riots and a heart-stopping picture of a girl jumping to her death, all nicked from the news. Suddenly that picture of Marilyn feels drenched in the pain of her recent death; those bottles of Coke look cracked and volatile. Pop culture is celebs and products, but it’s also media exploitation of tragedy and pain to sell papers. It’s following Jackie Onassis from fashion icon to distraught widow, Marilyn from screen to overdose, and loving every second. This critical, powerful, intellectual darkness is something that we rarely associate with Warhol but it’s what makes him so special.
There’s plenty of ultra-weak work here – he made a lot of art, and a lot of it wasn’t great –but the problem is that the show just doesn’t go in hard enough on the narrative it’s trying to pursue. It’s half mega-hits from art history, half intimate, personal, confidential look at his life, and it ends up being not enough of either.
But where this exhibition really succeeds is in showing that Warhol was political, horny and fixated with death. Not just some art myth, but something way more relatable: a human.