(appeared in NUVO Magazine)
Long before the Material Girl, Andy Warhol was fabricating his own material world. Artist, publisher of Interview and seigneur of The Factory, where films made and “superstars” were born, Warhol broke the mold of the serious artist dedicated to a higher calling. Instead of sneering at the commercial, he based his art on it,using everything from Campbell soup cans and Brillo pads to images of Jackie and Marilyn. Art and advertising were inseparable, according to Warhol; kitsch and commerce mingled in your face, and the flaunted aim was celebrity and money
“Good business is the best art”, Warhol famously said. What this means in terms of Warhol and the artists he influenced is the theme of “Pop Life: Art in a Material World”, an exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Featuring over 250 paintings, sculpture, installations and other products that blur the lines between art, entertainment and the marketplace, the exhibit promised to be a blockbuster.
“We are looking at a specific sub-sector of artists who have challenged the old notions of selling out; indeed, they made it into an art form”, explains John Shaughnessy, Assistant Curator of Contemporary art at the National Gallery. Among the many represented are American artists Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Richard Prince and Pruitt Early; British artists Damien Hirst, Stacey Emin and Sarah Lucas; German artist Martin Kippenberger; Japanese artist Takashi Murakami; and Polish artist Piotr Uklanski.
The show first appeared in London’s Tate Modern last fall and was curated by the Tate. The National Gallery was its only North American venue.
To underscore the celebration of the commercial, there was a model of artist Keith Haring’s famed New York Pop Shop, which functioned as a store where visitors could buy t-shirts and other Haring-designed merchandise.
The exhibit featured works of well known artists who have seldom or never been shown in Canada. British bad boy turned multi-millionaire, Damien Hirst, for one. His collection, Inside My Head Forever, which includes a skull encrusted with diamonds, was sold by Sothebys in London for 111 million pounds on the very day in September 2008 – and this was when Lehman Bros.was going bankrupt in New York.
After Warhol, notes Shaughnessy, the baton was passed to Jeff Koons, who has both Warhol’s deadpan irony and his entrepreneurial skills. Koons, who at one time supported his art making by working as a Wall-street trader, known for his bunny rabbit and poodle sculptures (the stainless steel Rabbit is in the show) He swooped into the big time at the l990 Venice Biennale through his Made in Heaven exhibit of billboards and paintings. They showed the artist and his nearly-nude model, Ilana Staller, a Hungarian port star turned Italian politician known as La Cicciolina. Their carnal poses were set against a kitsch Garden of Eden backdrop, likening them to a commercialized Adam and Eve. When the two married, the merger of art, life and publicity was complete. Made in Heaven is one of the standout sections of the exhibit.
Is there anything in the show that is critical of our culture of celebrity worship and mass marketing?
“Infiltrating the mainstream is seen as a critical gesture”, offers Shaughnessy.
He also points out something more elemental: Pop Life is the first serious examination of how, in our brand-obsessed world, anything can sell as long there’s a buyer.