Warhol at Waterloo – A Rare Retrospective

Think you know him?  Think again.  That’s the strapline to the new Andy Warhol Other Voices, Other Rooms exhibition, just opened at London’s Hayward gallery.

This major exhibition not only offers the chance to see some of Warhol’s most famous works, such as the Campbell’s soup series; but also showcases some of his rarely seen films, paintings, photography and impressive Time Capsules.  

Step into the first room and you’re greeted by cartoon-like Chairman Mao screen printed wallpaper and three enormous screens suspended from the ceiling, each with both familiar and unfamiliar faces staring directly at you.  Better know as Warhol’s ‘Screen Tests’ and filmed between 1963-66, each screen runs forty, four minute films of people linked to Warhol’s infamous work and living space; The Factory.  Choosing to perch on the floor in-between all three screens, I was able to watch footage of everyone from Salvador Dali, Dennis Hopper and the iconic Edie Sedgwick to unknown faces stare blankly at the camera simultaneously. Some of the subjects choose to ignore Warhol’s instructions not to move and play up for the camera by talking, smoking and dancing but what resounds with each one is their awareness of the stationary camera rolling so intimately close.

As part of what’s defined as the ‘Cosmos’, the initial room of the exhibition contains a rare glimpse into the other media and techniques Warhol chose to express and exploit his public persona.  On one side of the wall sits the famous Monroe and Jagger screen prints next to lesser-known life drawings in gold leaf and finished with cartoon style ink.  To the other side of the wall, you’ll find rare moments of Warhol’s life captured in Time Capsules – complete with a hand-written letter from radical feminist Valerie Solanas, the woman responsible for shooting Warhol and leaving him fighting for his life in 1968.  In the same room, take the opportunity to get up close and personal with what I’d describe as Warhol’s fool-around photo booth.  Exactly as they sound, a collection of black and white photo booth shots feature The Factory group fooling around as usual and are displayed next to polaroid shots of Sylvester Stallone, OJ Simpson, Sean Lennon and Warhol in requisite drag.  Well out of reach, you’ll spot one of the last remaining iconic Brillo boxes sitting nonchalantly alongside scarcely seen record sleeves and drawings from Warhol’s commercial design days.    I was inquisitively drawn to some comical snake drawings, which were in fact original graphite illustrations, designed and commissioned by leather company Fleming-Joffe for an animated film ‘Noa the Boa’ that was sadly never released.  

As the exhibition continues, you are inundated with a wall of quotes and images of Warhol and his idol Truman Capote (whose book the exhibition is named after).  Here Warhol explains simplicity to his work: ‘if you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings, and films, and me, and there I am.  There’s nothing behind it’.  This wall alone would suggest the very opposite, that infact Warhol was the owner of a very clever business and marketing mind. 

Next, prepare for a sensory overload with a series of video and audio booths entitled ‘TV-Scape’.  At the centre of the exhibition lies a room trimmed with red and white fringing that allows you to be as voyeuristic as Warhol himself – always the observer, never the participator.  Through the fringing, you can watch visitors plugged into headphones and almost consumed by the multiple TV screens.  From the outside, there is something particularly intriguing about the people inside being completely unaware that they themselves are being watched.  Step inside the room and you’ll learn that what they are watching is the complete series of forty-two episodes of Warhol TV. Made for Cable TV, the half hour episodes were followed up with nine further episodes in a more magazine format, commissioned by former Rolling Stones manager Peter Rudge and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Slip on the headphones and before long you too will become both the observed and the observer.

TV-Scape also includes a very rare opportunity to see six almost unheard of films including one featuring Paul Johnson, better known as Paul America.  Playing with a switchblade throughout the film, Johnson spends most of the film talking about drugs and admits to having taken some before filming commenced.  At one point, he states ‘you can talk about drugs forever as long as you keep taking them.  You can do a lot of things forever if you keep drugs around’.  And, that would include talking about a whole lot of nothing whilst playing with a switchblade on camera.  

‘Filmscape’ continues the exhibition into its third and final phase.  Here, if you’re a fan, you could easily lose many an afternoon in the wonders of Warhol.  Countless hours of film made in the early sixties reside in one vast room and include the acclaimed ‘Outer and Inner Space’.  Starring Edie Sedgwick, the film shows two reels projected parallel to each other – the result; a rather unnerved Sedgwick appearing as if she’s quite literally talking to herself.  ‘Sleep’, another film shot over a period of weeks in 1963, portrays Warhol’s partner at the time John Giorno…sleeping.  Continuing to document Warhol’s voyeuristic nature, I can’t help but question if ‘Sleep’ may well have been the inspiration for Sam Taylor Wood’s dozing David Beckham in 2004.  With nineteen films in one space, Filmscape is the largest, most comprehensive selection of Warhol films ever shown and offers the opportunity for you, the voyeur to delve deeper into the depths of Warhol’s mind.

Peer through the window at the end of the Filmscape room and yet again, you become a voyeur – but this time to live film in progress.  Large, helium filled metallic pillows, aptly named ‘Silver Clouds’, float by allowing visitors to interact with them.  Reminiscent of the silver foil Warhol’s assistant Billy Name covered his 47th street factory in, the metallic pillows (whether intentionally or not), create a sound evocative to the white noise that appears on so many Warhol films and audiotapes.

As one of the most significant artists of the 20th Century, Warhol has perfected a portal to convey life, death, sex, money, power, success and failure through film and other media.  If like me, you are captivated by his inspirational mind, I recommend you invest in the special Warhol membership (a snip at £20).  There’s hours of footage to watch and membership allows you to return to Other Voices, Other Rooms as much as you like for the duration of the exhibition.  Personally, I couldn’t think of a better way to lose many an afternoon on the South Bank than in the company of one most provocative pop artists in modern day culture.

 

Other Voices, Other Rooms is at the Hayward Gallery from 7th October – 18th January 2009.  Tickets available from South Bank Centre priced £4.50-£20.  Free entry to Southbank Centre members and under 12s.

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