by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Andy Warhol: A Celebration of Life... and Death

On leaving the National Gallery Complex on The Mound, you could be forgiven for thinking that this show’s rather grand subtitle - A Cel­e­b­ra­tion of Life… and Death - is a misprint. It really ought to read A Cel­e­b­ra­tion of Death… and Death, and Yet More Death.

Of course, much of Warhol’s work is ex­pli­citly concerned with death - the Death and Disaster series, the skull paintings, the Marylins made in the wake of the star’s demise, the Jackie Kennedy screen-prints that show her grieving for her as­sas­s­in­ated husband - but here, that morbid streak is in­fec­tious, colouring works that are generally taken to be cel­e­b­ra­tions of life, chock full of optimism.

Take the Brillo boxes that open the show. Elsewhere, these rep­lic­a­tions of the ordinary can only be read as happy Pop evoc­a­tions of de­mo­crat­ic American sameness - ‘All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good’, as Warhol himself had it - but here mass pro­duc­tion becomes analogous to the Cold War threat of mass death evoked in the late mono­chrome painting Map Of Eastern USSR Missile Bases, the repeated threat of a Pistol screen-print or the grim potential for death upon death of an empty electric chair. And, too, Warhol’s studied absence as an artist in his de­vel­op­ment of Duchamp’s readymades (unlike Fountain, which is a urinal upended, renamed and signed, the Brillo boxes are simply recreated, handmade readymades) is no longer a jolly, winking in­vit­a­tion to elevate the everday, but nothing less than an artistic suicide.

This might seem a wilful, even tenuous reversal of Warhol’s stated intent and long-accepted critical in­ter­pret­a­tion. If so, this show is to blame, thanks to a didactic tendency to divide Warhol’s legacy in two, pitting life against death to an extent that forces one to question the truth of that division.

For example, the catalogue essay insists that there is an op­tim­ist­ic twist to the skull paintings - which have an over­whelm­ing, immersive room to them­selves - since each skull casts a shadow in the shape of a baby’s head. If this is true (and, to be honest, it seems a bit of a stretch) the shadow baby is a glum little thing. Not a symbol of rebirth, but an ac­k­now­ledge­ment that, from the moment of birth, we’re all hurtling towards the grave. And their ir­re­press­ibly jolly colour-schemes are no sign of ac­cept­ance, but a grim joke at life’s expense, just like Self-Portrait With Skull: platinum wig aside, it’s hard to see the di­f­fer­ence between the man and the memento mori.

Even the Paintings For Children, hung low against fish wallpaper here, as they were when first exhibited in 1983 at a Zurich gallery, are deadly. Warhol did not paint animals or people for children, but clockwork toys; lifeless things with rictus grins, condemned to death each time their mech­an­is­ms wind down.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One room is given over to Silver Clouds, an in­stal­l­a­tion of re­flect­ive, helium-filled pillows, and, on my visit, full of toddlers gleefully ignoring the notice to interact ‘gently’ with the exhibit. Then, in the lower galleries, we are treated to a selection of Warhol’s early il­lus­tra­tion work. There are glorious drawings of shoes and handbags using the ‘blotted-line’ technique that pre­fig­ures his later use of screen-printing, and line drawings of beautiful boys smacking their lips, too. But the next room will wipe the smile off your face. It contains vitrines piled high with the contents of Warhol’s boxes, time capsules full of ephemera ex­pli­citly destined for pos­thu­m­ous ex­am­in­a­tion. As a record of Warhol’s daily existence these col­lec­tions of fan letters, playbills and press cuttings are simply fas­cin­at­ing, but as works of art, these boxes must be read as an attempt to stall time, to cheat death.

And, with that thought, the room full of celebrity portraits upstairs is recast. Instead of cel­e­b­rat­ing beauty and fame, revelling in su­per­fi­ci­al­ity, they become another attempt to guard against the future and its in­ev­it­able end. So, Debbie Harry is preserved in aspic, not held up for ad­mir­a­tion. And, con­ver­sely, Truman Capote is shown not as the the absurdly gorgeous, plump and pouting seducer that Warhol fell for in his youth, but sad-eyed and thin-lipped: another skull painting in all but name.

This is a wonderful show, then. Not just because it offers the chance to view works never before seen in Europe, let alone Scotland, and not just because it is beau­ti­fully put together, es­pe­ci­ally when it comes to the recreated in­stal­l­a­tions, but because it will more than likely change the way you think about Warhol and his work, whether you end up agreeing with its central thesis or not. Con­si­d­er­ing the ubiquity of Warhol’s images, the never-ending stream of ret­ro­spect­ives devoted to his work, and the volumes of popular and academic criticism devoted to his legacy, this is no mean feat.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.