Transmitting Andy Warhol and Gretchen Bender – Tate Liverpool

 by Elliot Davies

Transmitting Andy Warhol

A few days ago I read that Converse are releasing a line of shoes featuring the images of Campbell Soup tins as immortalised by Andy Warhol. That a percentage of the proceeds from these shoes will be donated to The Andy Warhol Foundation is by itself enough to quell the cries of “is nothing sacred”. But beyond that, it’s strangely fitting that Warhol’s legacy should be celebrated by a pair of limited edition shoes.

Listen to Songs For Drella, the album made by Lou Reed and John Cale in the wake of Warhol’s death. There’s a song called Open House, which explores how Warhol’s Factory, with its open door policy, was a relic of a Czechoslovakian upbringing.

The way to make friends, Andy, it to invite them up to tea.

The song also explores Warhol’s early career as an illustrator. The lyrics are drawn from Warhol’s diaries, and he mentions how, in one day, he had to draw 550 different shoes, which apparently almost made him faint.

You can say what you like about art as a mass produced commodity, but for me, the reason there’s something so fitting about the Warhol Converse is that it’s almost as though his career’s come full circle. True, in terms of his overall legacy, these shoes are but a footnote – hahahahaha – but it’s strangely touching that Warhol’s life as an artist should start with hundreds of drawings of shoes, only to be celebrated, decades down the line, with some supremely stylish, and supremely expensive, special edition shoes.

Something tells me that he’d have loved that. Maybe. I don’t know.

Having drawn hundreds of shoes, Warhol soon developed a reputation as being the best darn illustrator in New York, and it’s a role he continued to fulfill even whilst painting, shooting, and crafting his iconic masterpieces. Many of his illustrations for such contemporary fashion magazines as Vogue and Harper’s Bizarre are displayed at Transmitting Andy Warhol, where they are treated with just as much reverence as the works that are now familiar to millions – the Ghost Elvis, the Marilyns, the giant dollar signs and, of course, the soup.

Oh, the soup.

The magazine illustrations are stunning. Warhol’s style was light and mellow. Though his drawings contain an undeniably energy, it’s easy like the flow of a mellifluous jazz trio. They’re so full of life that even his black line drawings appear to burst with colour. They’re a reminder that, beyond the high concepts and the screen prints, Warhol possessed a unique eye for the stylish and the beautiful. It seems that whilst reshaping and repackaging art for the 20th century, Warhol was simultaneously capturing the breezy excitement of the modern world.

That striking self portrait that appears to redden with increased intensity the longer you stare. The wall of record sleeves, where the peeled bananas rub shoulders with the jazz greats. The quavering cherry of his distorted television commercial, and the strange disjointedness of his television broadcasts – it’s all here. But for me, the main attraction is undoubtedly the recreation of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was “Total Art” – a series of multimedia events that took place between 1966 and 1967. They featured dancers, film screenings and, most important of all, searing live performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico.

Tate Liverpool dedicate an entire gallery to their recreation of the EPI. It’s accessed via a dark corridor, where you can view posters, flyers, and what might very well be the original words and music to Venus In Furs and I’m Waiting For The Man.

Then you enter the gallery, and the lights and the films are projected onto every wall. I could take them in for hours. Nothing much happens in them, but taken as a whole, the effect is hypnotic – a flickering montage of leathers, whips, surrealists, and sunglasses. My only complaint is that the music isn’t loud enough. The Velvet Underground recordings sound raw and dangerous, but they should be piped in at ear-bleeding volumes. To paraphrase a contemporary review, the original EPI was reportedly loud enough to sink the Titanic, so it’s a terrible shame that this aspect of the event wasn’t recreated.

‘elf an’ safety, innit.

As a sort of companion to Transmitting Andy Warhol is a small but substantial exhibition of the works of the late Gretchen Bender. Her work is violent and confrontational, and her multimedia constructions are often referred to as “attacks”.

Dominating the exhibition is Total Recall (above), a video installation that dominates an entire room. It’s “a cannibalistic river”, a mountain of 24 CRTs and three projections that vomit an 18 minute onslaught of images. News graphics, fireworks, film previews, and documentary footage blur together into a disorientating swill. Taken out of context, these images have essentially been stripped of all meaning. However, a soundtrack by Stuart Argabright adds a poignant air of gravitas. So you stare with mouth agape, not quite sure what you’re seeing, but dimly aware that it’s, like, important, man.

And then you go home, you watch the news, and you feel both stupid and complicit.

It’s easy to see why Tate Liverpool chose to exhibit Bender and Warhol together. Both were concerned with consumption and mass media, and both used the available technologies variously as tools and as weapons.

The problem is, through exhibiting Bender’s work in such a way that it’s impossible to see it without first seeing Warhol’s work, they’re sort of implying that Bender was just another product of Warhol. True, she was clearly inspired by Warhol, but I wish they’d let her work stand alone and speak for itself. Where Warhol sometimes seemed genuinely excited by the sheer possibilities of consumerist culture, Bender’s work instead comes across as a seething rejection, a shattering of the black mirror that’s furious enough to make Warhol’s electric chairs resemble mere watercolours.

I’ve no idea how Bender felt about the work of Warhol, and though presenting her work as an encore may invite unfavourable comparisons, these guys have more in common than it seems. Believing that art is for everyone, Warhol wished to democratise art, to free it from the galleries and the elite. Bender had similar ideas, though rather than liberating art, she instead wished to liberate the public from mass media subterfuge.

Well, art has never really seemed willing to completely relinquish the gallery, and it sometimes feels as though the jealous grip of the media is tighter than ever. But still. To expose yourself to the outpourings of these two visionaries is enough to make you feel that all hope is not lost – nor will it ever be. This stuff can galvanise you.

The Transmitting Andy Warhol & Gretchen Bender exhibit runs at Tate Liverpool until February 8, 2015.