A thrilling fresh perspective on the life and art of Andy Warhol

The Art Gallery of SA’s headline exhibition for the Adelaide Festival’s visual arts program provides a thrilling new perspective on the American pop artist superstar whose cultural omnipresence has inspired countless exhibitions, documentaries, and even a cartoon cameo in The Simpsons.

Mar 03, 2023, updated Mar 03, 2023
An installation view of 'Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social
Media' at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Saul

An installation view of 'Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media' at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Saul Steed

Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media
Art Gallery of South Australia

You know this exhibition is a true one-off when photographer Christopher Makos, fresh off the plane from New York, pronounces it unlike any other he’s seen – and as one of Warhol’s inner circle from the Silver Factory days, Makos has seen a fair few.

Ten years in the making and curated by Julie Robinson, AGSA’s senior curator of prints, drawings and photographs, Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media differs from other Warhol retrospectives in that it focuses primarily on Warhol, his entourage and his New York world through the lens of photography.

Comprising more than 250 photographs, experimental films, screen prints and paintings, the prodigious Adelaide-exclusive display is arranged chronologically to reflect each one of Warhol’s successive Factory eras. It includes 45 photographs from AGSA’s permanent collection, as well as many works that are on loan from private collections and have never previously been seen before in Adelaide ­– including his 1960s pop-art portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

How Warhol – the sickly son of an impoverished Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant family, born in 1928 and raised in a two-bedroom apartment in a working-class Pittsburgh ghetto – came to have far more than his 15 minutes of fame, inspiring endless commentaries, exhibitions, books and cultural references, is a testament to his success at personal brand-building.

Installation view: Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media, featuring Andy Warhol’s Self-portraits; AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Warhol was a genius at marketing himself and his art at a time when the idea of social media influencing was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. He was so successful at creating an iconic self that in 1999, the late artist came to Homer in a dream during an episode of The Simpsons entitled “Mom and Pop Art”. “Soup’s on, fat boy!” drawled cartoon Andy, as he took aim at Homer’s head with cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, a consumer product made equally iconic by Warhol’s 1972 series of paintings featuring 32 different flavours of Campbell soup.

While these are some of his best-known works, photography was Warhol’s predominant obsession – alongside, perhaps, beauty and fame – and formed the foundation for his paintings and screen prints. Warhol’s art extended into his social life: in his book Expositions, a photograph sits alongside the introduction, entitled “Social disease”, in which he describes his compulsion to go out every night. “I will go to the opening of anything,” he quips, “including a toilet seat.”

Installation view: Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media, featuring Warhol’s Ladies and gentlemen; AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

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The prodigious photographs on display in this exhibition feature a jaw-dropping number of celebrities in candid mode: Liza Minnelli awkwardly posed on a bed, Bianca Jagger shaving her armpits, Mel Gibson caught off guard with a suspicious expression, and more. The celebrity roll call is endless: David Bowie, John Travolta, Truman Capote, John Waters, Dolly Parton and Keith Haring posing together in an unlikely combination. There are also numerous images revealing different sides of Warhol himself, as captured by Makos and other photographers.

For all the talk of Warhol’s loneliness, his antipathy towards his own appearance, the strategically expressionless mask he liked to present while uttering edgy, witty quips, the main impression from looking at the array of images in A Social Media is that Warhol sure knew how to have fun. He weaved his charismatic magic over the great and the good of New York, and was a pioneer of an exciting, ground-breaking and hedonistic era that produced the likes of Studio 54.

Installation view: Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media; AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Warhol is thought to have taken more than 60,000 photographs in his time and shot endless reels of film. He had a particular love of polaroid photography, the somewhat bleached results achieving his wish to make his subjects as beautiful as possible – that wish sometimes extending to superimposing better-looking lips onto subjects with less-than-ideal ones.

As Adelaide Festival artistic director Ruth Mackenzie noted at the exhibition preview, Warhol’s photography “speaks to everybody”. While photos from the past can evoke a sense of nostalgia for some, what is striking about this exceptional, thoroughly researched display is that the images presented remain as fresh and as topical as they were 50 years ago, precursors for the images presented by Gen Xers and social media influencers today.

It is a fabulous exhibition and an absolute must-see.

Andy Warhol and Photography: A Social Media, part of the 2023 Adelaide Festival’s visual arts program, is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until May 14. The gallery is presenting daily guided tours of the exhibition, as well as a range of associated talks and events (details here).

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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