Tate Modern seeks to reinvent him, but Warhol remains an enigmatic figure – which is partly why we're still so fascinated by him
Every age, it seems, needs to reinvent its icons. Not content to accept Warhol’s dictum to ‘just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me’ if you ‘want to know all about Andy Warhol’, we now have Warhol the exemplary Catholic who never missed Mass, and even Warhol the ‘deeply moral artist’ (according to an exhibition catalogue essay by Heiner Bastian).
But whatever is said about him, Warhol remains the most elusive, the most ambiguous, of artists – and maybe that’s what sustains our fascination. This is what he says of a young Factory hanger-on who died, as many did around Warhol, of a drugs overdose: ‘I never knew what to think of Eric [Emerson]. He could come out with comments that were so insightful and creative, and then the next think out of his mouth would be something dumb … you absolutely couldn’t tell if he was a genius or a retard.’
This has been trumpeted as a huge show, an extensive overview. It isn’t. Comprising 19 rooms (many of the rooms at Tate Modern are tiny) it take up a whole floor. It covers his activities as a hugely successful commercial artist ($100,000 in 1956 alone0 and there are lots of interesting early illustrations. A court painter for the 20th century, his images of screen legends are the defining images of the media age, and the iconic Marilyns, Liz Taylors, and Jackies, both grieving and grinning, are all here.
There’s a reworking of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, seeped in an orangery-red, replicated and inverted; Double Elvis, in silver silkscreen ink; Campbell’s soup tins in 24 varieties; and chilling images of suicides, car crash victims and murders lifted straight from police files. But not many of the Polaroids, the films, none of the Factory Screen Tests (you have to pay separately to see the films, a season of which will be screened throughout February and March).
Only one of the things are said about Warhol continues to ring true. That when Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968, all his ideas seemed to just shrivel up. His later images, overlaid with gestural brushstrokes, clearly lack the verve of earlier work, and his collaboration with doomed 1980s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat was frankly third-rate.
But, in 1986, a year before his death, he produced his haunting self-portraits. Purple, red and green and wearing a ‘fright wig’, once again he is Andy Warhol, the suspect genius.