Marilyn monroe, the Mona Lisa, a Coca-Cola bottle, Superman if it was famous, Andy Warhol made it into art. He said, famously, that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Anybody looking for his own quarter-hour in New York in the 1960s hung out at Warhol's Factory, the studio where he and his entourage produced paintings and films.
London's Tate Modern expects huge crowds for "Warhol," which opened early this month and runs until April 1. "There's something about his work that's so contemporary," says curator Donna De Salvo. Since Warhol, no one can be naive about the way the media shape our view of the world. This wasn't his stated aim he didn't have one. His manifesto was to have no manifesto. In his words: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." But, says De Salvo, his subject matter means his works can never be neutral.
From 1960 Warhol made paintings by enlarging the drawings found in small ads for water heaters, TVs or, in Before and After (1961), nose reshaping. The canvas shows how American society is caught between innovation and conformity, says De Salvo: "You see one nose and then you see this very refined, curt nose that has a kind of anonymous quality. He uses one image as a metaphor for an entire culture." Warhol had his own conk altered a few years earlier on his journey from a Czechoslovak immigrant background in Pittsburgh to fashionable circles in New York.
From small ads he moved on to multiple images of Coke bottles, green trading stamps, Campbell's soup cans and human beings. Thirty Are Better Than One (1963) presents 30 count 'em stacked Mona Lisas. In the same room are multiples of Monroe, Elvis Presley, the Statue of Liberty and Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol first painted Monroe after her suicide in August 1962. Instead of a recent photograph, he used a film still from nearly 10 years before. The flat silk-screen technique crookedly applies green eyeshadow and scarlet lipstick, like a magazine illustration of this season's makeup trends. Warhol's paintings "have the color of a shiny new car in the '50s and '60s," says De Salvo, the kind "used by advertisers to attract people to their products, [that have] an almost mesmerizing effect."
The pensive gaze of Liz Taylor, Monroe's heavy-lidded glance and the Mona Lisa's enigmatic leer recall the direct eye contact of the Catholic icons of Christ, the Madonna and saints that Warhol grew up with. Catholic imagery is also full of death and grisly executions, subjects that possessed Warhol during the '60s. Darkness hangs over Room 9 (Disasters) as the mushroom cloud of Atomic Bomb (1963) hung over the decade. In images adapted from anonymous news photos, rioters are attacked by police dogs. Women die in car wrecks or from poisoned tuna fish. The broken body of a suicide lies supine like Christ taken down from the cross. Twelve Electric Chairs (1964-5) are printed over bright hues orange, pink, jade. Each chair is alone in the room. A sign reads "silence." Like film stars and car-crash victims, these death instruments are observed coldly, as if by an all-seeing deity, says De Salvo: "Nothing is hidden, there is no privacy."
In the '70s and '80s Warhol used income from celebrity portraits to fund experiments, including huge abstracts. They consist of scaled-up camouflage material or giant Rorschach blots: patterns intended to confuse the eye or to suggest things that aren't there. Smaller, darker paintings from the same period sprinkled with real diamond dust record shadows falling across his studio.
A "morbidity and somberness" creeps into his later work, says De Salvo. Though his paintings preserve the beautiful youth of Mick Jagger and Liza Minelli, in his self-portraits Warhol recorded his own hollow eyes, leathery skin and flagrantly artificial hair. De Salvo sees the preoccupations of someone growing older. She admits, though, that he feared death and was terrified of going back into the hospital, having been seriously injured in 1968 when he was shot by an unbalanced feminist.
His frantic social life among the glitterati continued to the end. But De Salvo wanted to avoid "fetishizing the celebrity persona at the expense of looking at the work," preferring to present him as any other painter. Warhol, Pop Art pioneer, didn't live to see his prediction about fame come horribly true. He died unexpectedly in 1987 following a gall-bladder operation in a hospital. He claimed his work was all surface and described himself as "deeply superficial." But somehow he raised shallowness to new heights.