Death and dollar signs: Warhol’s memory capsules of 20th-century America

Mark Lawson’s Critic’s Notes.

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Because Andy Warhol (1928-87) rarely spoke in public and when he did he mumbled gnomically, it’s difficult to know what he thought. But as his art was obsessed with modernity – frozen moments of his time, from supermarket products to scenes on TV – it seems unlikely that posterity was a central concern, especially as his most quoted line (“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”) addressed the perishability of celebrity. As it turns out, in the present, Warhol has been famous for 50 years and so there’s a particular fascination – in “Transmitting Andy Warhol”, the handsome retrospective at Tate Liverpool – in seeing how his stuff stands up. 

The Tate display puts special emphasis on the artist’s later work in film, which led him more than once to murmur about retiring from painting. And a good case is made that his video pieces mark him as a cultural prophet in the league of George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan. By aiming a camera at the Empire State Building for eight hours or a friend’s sleeping form for five hours and creating a deliberately vacuous TV show of interviews, Warhol foresaw webcams, reality television and the ethos of the internet.

His best works, however, are not the pictures that scarcely move but the ones that remain completely still. Each Warhol retrospective makes it seem even more shocking that the philistines of his time dismissed his paintings, prints and sculptures as easy or empty. The works beside the Mersey confirm the sharpness of his eye: there’s always more going on than a sceptic thinks.

Blue Airmail Stamps (1962), for example, may reproduce the same image 44 and a half times but, by choosing a stamp with a jet on it, Warhol creates a blanket-bombing raid in a year that the US tripled its troop levels in Vietnam. Because of his tactical or actual inarticulacy, the extent to which Warhol was consciously a political artist remains unverifiable. Yet the show demonstrates that, one way or another, he perfectly selected the items for a memory capsule of late-20th-century America: the Tate curators pointedly place in close proximity depictions of a gun, a dollar sign, an electric chair and the murders of the Kennedy brothers. The latter canvases are further darkened by Warhol having himself survived an assassination attempt by the writer Valerie Solanas – suffering serious gunshot wounds – days before RFK was killed.

The only weakness is that, as Warhol shows usually do, this one underplays the extent to which his lifelong Catholicism informs his most iconic creations. This is the art of a child who gazed up at images of horrifically murdered men and women who had achieved saintliness by rejecting sex. Marilyn overlaps with another “MM” – Mary Magdalene – and is perhaps even transmuted into a non-virgin Mary in works that ape the panelled form of altarpieces.

The Warhol compositions that deal with the decomposition of Monroe are terrifying memento mori. In Marilyn Diptych (1962), from the year of her death, her bright-pink face fades in the second panel to a blackened negative. The palette of rigor mortis is utilised even more frighteningly, five years later, in another set of Marilyn screen prints in which the progressively disintegrating portraits play with the techniques of movie and mortician’s make-up.

Liverpool isn’t a place we connect with this artist, although the Tate dutifully includes his undated portrait of the Beatles. That, though, is perhaps the weakest painting to be seen – there’s nothing going on except reproduction – whereas the rest of the exhibition handsomely confirms that Warhol represents one of those moments when artistic possibility breaks its frames.

Strike up the band

The most familiar dramatic genres are tragedy, comedy, farce, musical, monologue and revue. Yet an article in the programme for Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre in London – a song-and-dance version of the film about a 1968 equal-pay strike at a Ford plant – posits a new artistic subdivision: the industrial dispute musical. It lists eight shows about shop-floor walkouts, including Strike!, a Canadian hit about a 1919 general strike in Winnipeg; The Pajama Game, recently revived in London; and Billy Elliot, which has been turning the 1984 miners’ picket line into a chorus line for almost ten years now.

Whereas Margaret Thatcher appears in that show only in lyrics and as an effigy, Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle, the politicians challenged by the women who stitched the seats for Cortinas, are central characters in Made in Dagenham, with the prime minister delivering a Python­esque silly-walk number about the balance of payments.

Some newspaper reviews have seemed to me astonishingly bilious, the main complaint being that this is a less serious piece than Billy Elliot. But the tone of any drama is largely dictated by its ending and, because the miners lost but the Essex feminists won, the comedic feel of the Ford musical is justified. No originally written musical for years has been this funny and Made in Dagenham deserves a long run before the management locks it out. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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