Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Art review: Warhol/Supernova

New light shines from damaged, falling stars

“Many of the people I’ve interviewed, who knew or worked with [Andy] Warhol, seemed damaged or traumatized by the experience. Or so I surmise: They might have been damaged before Warhol got to them. But he had a special way of casting light on the ruin — a way of making it spectacular, visible, audible. He didn’t consciously harm people, but his presence became the proscenium for traumatic theatre. Pain, in his vicinity, rarely proceeded linearly from aggressor to victim; trauma, without instigator, was simply the air everyone around him breathed. To borrow a religious vocabulary, often useful in Warhol’s case: He understood that people were fallen. Standing beside him, they appeared more deeply fallen, even if his proximity, the legitimacy he lent, the spark he borrowed and returned, promised them the temporary paradise of renown.”

–Wayne Koestenbaum

Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths And Disasters 1962-’64, the new show at the Art Gallery Of Ontario (AGO), is a triumph of collaboration between the living and the dead. While the exhibit of about 30 Warhol silkscreen paintings began life at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, organized by curator Douglas Fogle, the AGO has been madly hyping the intense involvement of star filmmaker David Cronenberg for the exhibition’s one Canadian date — and the gamble has paid off. While the Cronenberg-heavy publicity campaign may be unsophisticated (the most dunderheaded slogan: “Sex symbols. Car crashes. Electric chairs. We’d expect this from Cronenberg, but from Warhol?”) it turns out that Cronenberg’s curatorial work at the AGO is an eye-opener.

Cronenberg’s incorporation of Warhol’s films from the period, his careful arrangement of all the work and his watershed audio tour reveal an emotional depth and soul in an oeuvre that has arguably been devalued through its own mythic status, challenging the unfounded idea that the work is simplistic and boring or as superficial as the Sphinx-like dandified artist himself claimed it to be.

In order to uncover the more ambiguous, thornier aspects of Warhol’s world that are not necessarily as easy to digest as soup or silver pillows, Cronenberg explicitly frames this exhibit as a confrontation between painting and film, celebrity and death, at a seminal period in the artist’s development. While he only mentions Warhol’s gay identity once in the audio tour, Cronenberg stages one of the queerest-ever manifestations of Warhol.

Cronenberg groups films and paintings together in several provocative arrangements, stressing the acute connections between Warhol’s work in both media. His Death and Disaster works rub shoulders with portraits of stars, most notably tragic, exquisite Jackie Kennedy, who gets an entire room dedicated to her image (Cronenberg cheekily refers to her as the star of the Zapruder film). The wonderful, queer thing about fame — what links a Liz Taylor to an Andrew Cunanan or a Matthew Shepard — is that one can not only become famous through great beauty, talent and charm, but also through great depravity and misfortune. Graceful Jackie was a princess, but JFK’s assassination made her a goddess.

Pervaded by a still gravitas, Warhol’s paintings and films appear like tombstones here; many are huge, monolithic, grey or silver, and their subjects are mostly dead, culled from the print media and then replicated. These celebrities are the supernovas of the title that burn brightest before going out forever; better yet, each is a Flaming Star, the name of the film from which Warhol’s images of Elvis originated. For Cronenberg, it becomes a metaphor for death, always lurking over one’s shoulder. In the exhibit, the massive Elvis I and II, from 1963 and probably 1964, respectively — two Elvises in eye-popping colour and two in black and white, with the print quality fading from left to right — are placed next to the canonical Screen Tests (circa 1964 to ’66), a small sampling of Warhol’s encyclopedic project that allowed him and his friends to study the spellbinding faces of a range of human specimens from Edie Sedgwick to Marcel Duchamp. Cronenberg interprets the steadily fading ink of the multiple prints as the withering away of renown and life itself. One could make the same case about the bursts of white light that signal the end of a 16mm film reel, omnipresent in this show as Warhol usually let the film run out: While the star may command the world’s attention, the cinematic machine waits for no one.

Marked by the stillness of the glamour pose and of rigor mortis, the exhibition is also deathly quiet — all the films (shown on DVD and sadly washed out by the overhead lights) are silent, and the digital projectors don’t make a peep — and most paintings balance their audacious but frozen imagery with vast expanses of pure colour. In the case of Red Disaster (1963), a full canvas of bright red paint is paired with his notorious, repeated electric chair image which itself bears a small sign urging “silence.”

Beyond amphetamines, perhaps the most important social glue that held together Warhol’s scene was a shared fascination with old Hollywood movie stars, a camp cult of sorts that especially revelled in the silver screen’s more wretched excesses. My favourite Andy is the pale, sickly, poor, mother-loving little Pittsburgh faggot who, in critic Simon Watney’s words, made “his own America” from the mass culture detritus around him. Warhol made anything, from product packages to movie and crime stills, “speak [his] queer feelings.” Similarly, Wayne Koestenbaum, in his essential biography of the artist, argues that the star system is the “structure of identity on which [he] depended.” In the movies, women were permitted the kinds of acting out that theatrical young gay boys could only dream of, a hyperbolic mix of glamour and emotion that is taboo and sissy for little Andy, but not for Liz.

Cronenberg rightly points out that Warhol did not create an anti-Hollywood with his superstars, but a queer, effusively defective version fuelled by his esteem for the glittering original. Enthralled by testing the limits of human presence, the attention that his camera lavishes on the beautiful boys and girls in his orbit has a transcendent power — thanks to the magnitude of his belief in stardom, everyone appears flamboyant and fascinating (though being an exhibitionist doesn’t hurt either).

One painting from 1963 that I’ve rarely seen before is known as 1947-White, and it is difficult to make out precisely what one is seeing. It appeared to me like a siren immersed in a sea of flowing fabric or even lapping waves, but in reality is a woman who has just jumped from the top of the Empire State Building and landed on the roof of a car that has crumpled beneath her corpse (the murderous skyscraper greets us at the entrance of the show in Warhol’s eight-hour epic 1964 film portrait Empire). 1947-White is mounted in a row with three other monumental works in shades of grey or silver including the densely layered Race Riot (1963), the deliciously distasteful Tunafish Disaster (1963) and the awe-inspiring diptych Saturday Disaster (1963-’64). The latter work is one of many graphic, masterful car crash works on display, which stands out for the enormous size of its doubled image registered on the canvas almost too perfectly (a rarity).

Another revelation is the commissioned portrait Miriam Davidson (1965), a checkerboard of 20 high-contrast silkscreened canvases in a plethora of bright colours. (Cronenberg points out that Miriam is clearly trying to be Jackie, accordingly confining her to the Jackie room.)

Another juxtaposition pairs the 1962 portrait Troy Diptych — that’s Troy Donahue — with Warhol’s film Couch from 1964, a surprising choice considering how very social Couch is, and by that I mean orgiastic. Most of the other films on display — and there are 35 if you count all 30 Screen Tests — have very strict parameters of what is in the frame, focussing on faces. But Couch’s only rule is that anything goes, provided it fits on this battered sofa. An hourlong document of the goings-on on the Factory’s most famous piece of furniture, we see a wide range of characters both clothed and naked (often together) and enough explicit gay sex to clear the gallery space of prudish patrons in a hurry.

This isn’t the only sex in the show, either. One brilliant arrangement bookends a modestly sized silver electric chair piece called Silver Disaster #6 (1963) with two haunting early movie masterpieces: the electrifying, erotic Kiss (1963) — a personal favourite — and the chaste tease Blow Job (1964). This motley crew is watched over by two stone-faced denizens of Warhol’s censored Most Wanted Men project. Any desire for titillation is thwarted. All the hardcore remains hidden off-screen. And if the electric chair is a self-portrait of Andy, as Cronenberg contends, there he stands in the centre, watching the superstars around him reveal all while he stays invisible, behind the scenes.