A private collection of over 100 original Warhol works is invading Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum this spring, available to the public eye for the first time. Graceful Greek marbles and Pre-Raphaelite oils have been pushed to one side, replaced by repetition, lurid clashes of hues, and humdrum subject matter. When asked the question, “What is art?”, Andy Warhol’s characteristically playful response was, “Isn’t that a guy’s name?” This laconic answer encapsulates perfectly the artist’s attitude towards his practice. Never one for pandering to tradition, his pop art creations are recognisable in an instant. Warhol’s celebration of all things consumerist and celebrity transformed “cheap and cheerful” into the creative currency of a generation.
The exhibition spans a lifetime: from his earliest works to his final pieces, including a screen print of the slogan, “Heaven and hell are just one breath away!”, completed, eerily, just prior to the artist’s death. The works come exclusively from the private collection of Andrew Hall, an alumnus of the University of Oxford. As a result, many of the artist’s most recognisable works are conspicuously absent. Elvis, Marilyn, and Campbell’s soup tins are nowhere to be seen, but this void seems somehow apt. Warhol strived to distort everyday perceptions, to inject the familiar with the unfamiliar, and the absence of his most famous works in favour of unknown masterpieces embodies the artist’s spirit perfectly.
A new side to Warhol himself is also revealed. The artworks are accompanied by small notices with facts about Warhol’s personal life – an assassination attempt on his life, the seedier side of his sexual relationships, and a fervent belief in the Catholic Church, all re-emphasise lesser known aspects of Warhol as both an artist and a man.
The flatness of his pop-art images conceals hidden depths. The artist’s preference for the medium of silk-screening allowed him to explore the idea of distorting perception. The technique enabled him to replicate images, in a superficially uniform manner, while also generating random variations. In The American Man (Portrait of Watson Powell) (1964), smears of ink, patches of shadow, and the blurring of edges transform the seemingly monotonous repetition of the American businessman into an entire portrait gallery of distinctive faces.
Eerie echoes resonate from seemingly banal subjects. Physiological Diagram (1985-6) has the superficial appearance of the sewing advertisements typical of the era. Yet the cutting lines and incision marks pierce not a piece of cloth, but a human form, as if from the pages of a pseudo-medical textbook. The abstract strokes, lack of realistic human detail, and chilling dearth of colour are a far cry from the artist’s early portraiture. The piece reflects Warhol’s obsession with his own scarred body, held together by a surgical corset following the aforementioned assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968.
The discovery of this darker, even gothic, side to Warhol distorts received reception of his work. Despite the cartoon style, shadows (both actual and metaphorical) are everywhere: from the random smears of the screen-print technique, to the shade lurking at the edges of his self-portrait and his later monochromatic works. Death, too, creeps insidiously into the paintings. The grief-stricken portrait of Jackie Kennedy (1964), painted in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and the portraits of the royal family of Iran, created on the eve of their downfall, attest to the omnipresence of lurking darkness in the eyes and spirits of his creations.
Yet the distortion and challenges to perception can also have more mischievous tones. An area of the exhibition is dedicated to Warhol’s oxidation paintings from 1978. These abstract splashes and trickles parody Pollock’s famous drip paintings, and challenge the creative processes used by Abstract Expressionists. Warhol gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “taking the piss”, using the random patterns created by streams of urine, either his own or someone else’s, left to oxidise to create the pieces.
The experimental works from his last years include religious iconography transformed into pop art, as well as the reproduction of advertisements and slogans of his early work, now violently stripped of their colour. The exposed emptiness of the monochrome pseudo-adverts seems to challenge the psychedelic expression of consumerism that characterised the earlier Warhol.
Just as his pop art forced us to reconsider the notion of “classic”, this new exhibition exposes the shadows and emptiness that lurk behind the colour, puncturing our comfortable view of “classic” Warhol. Warhol’s work is both shallow and profound, repetitive yet eternally captivating. It seems a fitting contradiction for a man who, despite his celebration of all things capitalist, was in fact a devout Catholic.
Andy Warhol: Works from the Hall Collection runs at the Ashmolean Museum until 15 May. More information on the exhibition and tickets can be found on the museum’s website.