Wall-to-wall Warhol

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Andy Warhol once said, "I prefer to remain a mystery." Though he became the most influential and easily recognized contemporary artist of the late 20th century before his death in 1987, producing countless iconic works that expanded the realm of the art world, Warhol's intentions and overarching viewpoint have ultimately remained hard to pin down.

The many Warhol-centered exhibitions since his death have delved into one area or another - the silkscreens, the portraits, even his porn collection - but outside of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, they haven't all come together.

That was the irresistible challenge that drove Eva Meyer-Hermann, an independent German curator, to create Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms, the massive Warhol show opening at the Wexner Center on Sept. 13. The Wex is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

"I started with an impossible task, and I like that," Meyer-Hermann explained in a phone conversation before her trip to oversee the installation in Columbus. "People were laughing at me, saying there have been so many Warhol shows and you won't be able to find something [new].

"In a really romantic way, I was looking for the one document in which I would maybe have Warhol as his own witness telling me what [his work] is all about," she continued.

"That's the question we all ask ourselves: Why is this great art and what is the great artistic accomplishment of an artist like Warhol? I think this question was not asked thoroughly in the past, so I was going into archives, mainly the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The outcome of the research [was], I didn't find this one item, I found 700."

Made or compiled over nearly four decades, those items will totally envelop the Wex's exhibition spaces, including the ramp, which will be covered in celebrity-signifying red carpet and lined with photographs and videos.

It forms part of the "Cosmos" section of the show, highlighting Warhol's overall process through items such as video and audiotapes (he obsessively recorded his daily life), issues of Interview magazine, a Brillo Box, album covers such as the Velvet Underground's banana-adorned debut and documents of the performance piece Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Also included is one of Warhol's "time capsules" - everyday items from his desk boxed up and catalogued - and 40 of his "screen tests" of Factory players, projected on screens hanging from the rafters.

The remaining two sections of the exhibition concentrate on a part of Warhol's work that's known mostly by reputation.

In "TV-Scape," a field of monitors presents all 42 episodes of the television show Warhol produced from 1979 to 1987 and aired on New York cable stations, featuring interviews with everyone from Halston to Georgia O'Keeffe to Freddie Mercury.

"Filmscape" offers 19 of Warhol's films - a rare opportunity to see them, given the length of some (Sleep and Empire run about eight hours apiece) and the challenge they present to viewer and curator. With the static peak of the Empire State Building as its subject, Empire is a sort of still life, yet it's captured in a medium in which movement is expected, and one that doesn't normally sit side-by-side with actual still images.

For Meyer-Hermann, it was key for that juxtaposition to exist in Other Voices. "I was interested in comparing them stylistically and formally, and if you want to do this in a classic art historical way, you have to juxtapose things," she said.

"You have to create a huge landscape for film, and that's what we did thanks to this great architectural company that's specialized in exhibition design [Berlin-based Chezweitz & Roseapple]. You can see 19 films continuously, and like a classical gallery for old paintings, you can choose whether you want to meditate for hours in front of Empire or follow the Chelsea Girls talks."

By immersing visitors in every available aspect of Warhol's life and work, the curator invites each of us to adopt the artist's practice of sifting through the relics of everyday existence and coming away with something personally meaningful.

It may be as simple a connection as sharing Warhol's fascination with celebrity or his childhood memories of Campbell's tomato soup at lunchtime, or it can offer new revelations about the perceived value of art and pop culture, and how these reflect our values as individuals and a society.

"Warhol has this famous quote about the surface, 'You look at the surface and there I am,'" Meyer-Hermann said. "And traditionally as an analytical person, you want to look behind the surface, but if you look at the surface, you reflect, and that's what I think his things do. They mirror onto the viewer. It's cliched to say this is about you and me, but it literally is. It's a mirror of our world, and then you see there what you want to see."

Get that to go

The idea of putting a great work of art on a mug or a tote bag can be distasteful to the true art lover, but not when it comes to Andy Warhol. Almost as famous as his Marilyn Monroe portrait and his soup cans is the artist's willingness during his lifetime to exploit his artwork's entrepreneurial possibilities.

As Warhol once said, "Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art."

Fortunately, those holding the rights to Warhol's images have generally chosen wisely when offering licensing fees for the creation of Warhol-related products. A large selection of these is heading to the Wexner Center Store for the opening of Other Voices, Other Rooms, and several items have already arrived.

Not everything with Warhol's name attached was appropriate, said store manager Matt Reber, explaining how he turned down some less-than-exciting rugs. What has been selected is a colorful assortment of functional and decorative items with a pleasingly wide price range.

Magnets with famous Warhol images start at under $2, while Robert Lee Morris' gorgeous sterling "Fragile" cuff goes for $400. In the middle are high-quality reproductions from Bruce McGaw Graphics ($25), the last of a line of discontinued bags from Loop NYC (around $50), watches from Seiko (starting at $35) and Warhol-licensed fragrances ($135-$230).

Reber said he wouldn't normally stock fragrance, but the packaging was too beautiful to resist. As for the scents themselves, he joked, "I hope it smells like his armpits."

Other Voices, Other Rooms, other programs

The grand opening of the Warhol show at the Wexner Center brings with it a fall full of related programming.

The schedule kicks off on opening day, Sept. 13, with a performance of Velvet Underground music by The Go-Betweens founder Robert Forster. It's followed by can't-miss events such as a conversation between John Waters and former Warhol collaborator Vincent Fremont on Oct. 3, a symposium on Nov. 15 including curator Eva Meyer-Hermann and actress Mary Woronov, and the Wex's annual fundraiser ball, this year titled "Andyland" and totally themed to the Warhol exhibition.

Click to wexarts.org for a complete list of accompanying events.