culture special

Warhol no
8 jan 08

In an attempt to immerse himself in culture and pacify his girlfriend, Luc Ciotkowski pulled out his Campbell’s soup tins and visited Andy Warhol’s latest exhibition in Madrid.
WORDS by Luc ciOtkOWSki

ou find culture in bars, in the street, in the queue at the baker’s and in the supermarket: wherever people are. What do you find in an art gallery? Paintings and stuff. There’s some culture in them, yeah, but there’s a hell of a lot more in the people who are walking around the art gallery.” So went my rant to my girlfriend a few weeks ago as I struggled to justify having never set foot inside an art exhibition after more than two years living in Madrid. The triangle of the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza art museums and other exhibitions make Madrid one of the most important centres of art in Europe. I’ll let you decide if that means I’m an uncultured pig, but, either way, I’m willing to

accept I’ve been stupid not to take advantage of having these things on my doorstep. However, I stand by what I said about culture, even the bit about being in the queue at the baker’s. In general, a British person will resign himself to waiting quietly in a queue, even if he is alone. A Spanish person is constantly trying to engineer some way of jumping the queue and the only thing that preserves the queue is the fact that everyone else in it is doing exactly the same thing. The way people, as a group, act and behave: culture. I don’t think paintings of cherubs flying about holding mirrors for beautiful, chubby, naked women are particularly useful in understanding 17th century Spanish culture. I’m not taking anything away from Velázquez; his paintings show an exceptional tal-

culture special
ent and skill. That’s what I want from art, beautiful things, not like a bunch of soup cans. Wait a minute; a load of soup cans would say a lot more about culture! But that wouldn’t really be art, right? I’m going to need Andy Warhol to make sense of this. A bizarre, pervy, autistic, wig-wearing freak of nature. Not necessarily in that order, but those were my first, uncensored and unflattering thoughts about Andy Warhol. When EV sent me to Warhol’s new exhibition, Warhol On Warhol, at La Casa Encendida in Madrid, I thought it was good going, to say he’s been dead for twenty years. Warhol died in 1987 after a routine gall bladder operation, because hospital staff pumped him too full of fluids and provoked a fatal heart attack. By then he had already cemented himself as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and made himself synonymous with the pop art movement. He was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928 to immigrant parents from what is now Slovakia. His dad worked in a coal mine and the family were Byzantine Catholics (Andy continued practising this religion his whole life). As a child, Andy came down with a condition called St Vitus’ Dance. You might not have heard of the disease, but here in Spain, they have an expression about it. If someone asks you, “What’s wrong with you? Have you got St Vitus’ Dance?” it means you’re moving about and twitching annoyingly. The condition provokes twitchy involuntary movements and this, along with his blotchy skin pigmentation, made him an outcast at school. He spent periods of his childhood bed-ridden, collecting pictures of film stars, drawing and listening to the radio. He and his mother developed a strong bond. To me, it all sounds like the perfect recipe for growing an artist who is a bit weird and, in retrospect, Warhol said he thought his illness was a key factor in forming his skills, personality and preferences. Warhol studied commercial art and went on to become a successful commercial artist in New York. In 1962, his Campbell’s soup cans paintings were first exhibited and sparked a controversy in the art world. Everyone was arguing whether painting everyday objects counted as art and discussing Warhol’s message that modern, popular culture was something to be celebrated. Warhol used celebrities like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy as subjects for his now trademark silkscreen portraits and, through them, grew to be a celebrity in his own right. He opened his studio, ‘The Factory’ in New York and be, gan to extend his artistic expression across all types of media. His giant Brillo boxes were his most famous ‘sculpture’ and the ‘supermarket’ exhibition was another occasion when people brought up the question, “Is this art?” Andy made over sixty films between 1963 and 1968, the most famous being ‘Chelsea Girls’ but the ones that grab my attention are ‘Sleep’ (six hours , of a man sleeping) and ‘Blow Job’ (a thirty-five minute shot of someone’s mouth while supposedly being fellated). It all nearly came to an end for Warhol in 1968, when another interesting character, Valerie Solanas, shot him (and an art critic) in the chest when he was in The Factory. She had submitted a script for a play called ‘Up Your Ass’ and had been demanding its return. On the day of the shooting, she had been informed that the script had been lost and was turned away before she came back with a gun. Warhol almost died and had to wear bandages for the rest of his life. After that, he withdrew from The Factory scene, but continued to build his reputation with high profile portrait commissions from the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Michael Jackson and by collaborating with talented new artists. The Warhol On Warhol exhibition shows photographs and paintings by and of the artist (a few film projections, too) throughout his career. For me, it lets you in on how he did it, that is, to become the first artist to be a product and a producer without necessarily being the creator. He used famous things and famous people to become famous. Once he was famous, he made his friends famous by association. Once they were famous, they made him even more famous. His “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” quote has not only been absorbed into the English language, but has proved prophetic with the advent of reality television and youtube. Warhol is extremely quotable. I’ll tell you my favourite. It’s not the I-want-to-be-Oscar-Wilde, “I’m deeply superficial” nor the cyni, cal, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art” . There is another prophecy come true... And it goes out to all the 30-year-olds in Spain who live with their parents and for whom mummy cooks, cleans and washes their clothes, “Since people are going to be living longer and getting older, they’ll just have to learn how to be babies longer.” You were right, Andy.

As a child, Andy came down with a condition called St Vitus’ Dance. You might not have heard of the disease, but here in Spain, they have an expression about it.

jan 08


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