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Art review: Andy Warhol at Tate Modern, London

27 March 2020

Nicholas Cranfield was at the opening of the Andy Warhol exhibition

© 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by DACS, London.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962 (Tate)

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962 (Tate)

BY CURIOUS happenstance, the day set for the press view of the Warhol blockbuster at Tate Modern turned out to be the date for which I had tickets for Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, which the Jewish Chronicle heralded as his first Jewish play; and that may well be his last. Both events were crowded, despite the hovering unreal sense of the spread of Covid-19.

Threaded around an otherwise normal Tuesday in the parish, two return jaunts into central London provided contrasted observations from the Czechoslovakian diaspora. Britain’s most noted contemporary playwright grew up in Japan and India and America’s most famous Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic escaped from the industrial wastelands of Pittsburgh to New York.

© 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by DACS, London.Andy Warhol (1928-87), Sixty Last Suppers, 1986 (Nicola Erni Collection)

Stoppard used his background in an earlier, affectionately witty play, India Ink (1995). Now, he has mined his Jewish family’s experience to provide a sprawling account of what it might mean to assimilate in any society. More worthy than witty, he wisely stops the clock in 1955.

Andy Warhol (1928-87), by contrast, was a first-generation immigrant who was born in Pittsburgh in a part of the coal-mining city dominated by Rusyn emigrants from Carpathian Ruthenia. The exhibition seeks to explore two private sides to Warhol’s life; his religiosity, which he shared closely with his widowed mother (herself an illustrator), with whom he lived until her death; and his sexuality, which first drew him to seek out a community of like-minded men.

© 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc /Licensed by DACS, London.Andy Warhol, Boy with Flowers, 1955-57 (Artist Rooms, Tate, and National Galleries of Scotland)

When in New York, Warhol went to church most days; he sat discreetly at the back, to avoid being seen to cross himself in the Orthodox fashion. He helped run a soup kitchen at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue: three centuries before, in Spain, the painter Murillo (1617-82) belonged to a confraternity that distributed bread to poor street urchins in Seville.

Stoppard was an outsider, growing up in a post-colonial military household in English-speaking India and then in England. Warhol made himself an outsider when he moved to New York, initially as a commercial artist. To an extent, both could write the script of their own adult lives.

When I lived on Manhattan in 1983-84, Studio 54 had passed its 1970s heyday. As much diversity could be found at Union Theological Seminary, where I was a visiting Fellow for a yearm although in the puzzling multiplicity of denominations there (more than 57 varieties) I do not recall any student from the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic church (founded 1646); nor did I ever run into Warhol.

Warhol’s work is “iconic” in the sense that he uses a minimum of affect to conjure an unforgettable image. His “portrait” of Queen Elizabeth II is as recognisable as are the profile representations of the sovereign on postage stamps and on our currency. Like so many other representations, it derives from a published photograph. How much such depictions might have owed to his own religious background, while hinted at by the exhibition curators, is less evident.

 © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by DACS, London.Andy Warhol, Self Portrait, 1986 (Tate)

To stretch a point; how far would the iconostasis, in his home church of St John Chrysostom, in Pittsburgh, with its row of saints hanging in front of the sanctuary, have informed his decision to produce Jackie Frieze (1964), in which eight images of the widowed First Lady stand side by side in a screen print more than three yards in width?

Such images are themselves repetitious. The use of screen printing allowed the artist to reproduce them frequently in extended series, printing them on canvas or circulating them in mass numbers as prints. All those soup tins, Elvis with his gun, Liz Taylor looking ageless back in 1963.

Icons often look the same, even when they date from a span of several centuries, because the Orthodox church emphasises continuity in tradition. Some contemporary icon-writers have begun to diverge from the format that was established in the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-century pre-iconoclastic Byzantine tradition, but this is a modest and modern development, not always welcomed by the church authorities.

© 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc /Licensed by DACS, London.Andy Warhol, Flowers, 1964 (private collection)

Warhol himself claimed that his work was mechanical, and that sets him apart from the writer of icons whose patient (and prayerful) regard for both subject and technique are somewhat different.

Much like Stoppard’s play, the exhibition is uneven, but thought-provoking. Both stand as testimonies to their creators, but I wanted to have a fuller account of religion. Stoppard is a man well aware that he has outwritten his span of three score years and ten; Warhol lived with a fear of death, which he also encountered first hand when, in June 1968, he was shot, and was pronounced dead, before a five-hour operation to bring him back to life.

From London, the Warhol show travels to Cologne (10 October-21 February 2021), and then to Toronto and Texas, where it closes in Dallas on 7 November 2021. Maybe that should be extended to 23 November, to commemorate the events in Dealey Plaza when no one could bring JFK back to life.

“Andy Warhol” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1, until 6 September. The gallery is currently closed until at least 1 May, in line with advice from Public Health England. www.tate.org.uk

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