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August 01 2012

Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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Iran is sitting on a modern-art goldmine

Tehran's modern art museum will win acclaim if it takes its splendid collection out of the darkness and puts it on display

The art world's Persian moment is long forgotten now. The critic Robert Hughes wrote disdainfully, back in the day, of "one of the odder aspects of the late Shah's regime". To prove their liberalism to the west – as that trenchant observer of Tehran's 1970s art splurge saw it, watching from New York – the autocratic rulers of what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran went overboard for modern art. Clever dealers jumped in at a time when the art market was flat (there was a recession) and Andy Warhol even went to Tehran in person, turning it into a glamorous art scene by his silvery presence.

Then boom, the revolution happened, and after that the Shah's modern art collection disappeared into a basement, condemned as decadent and sacrilegious. Only now, it seems, have the rulers of today's Iran realised that they, in turn, might look a bit more liberal and enlightened if they put some pop art on show. Perhaps they might also be starting to notice that modern abstract art has a lot in common with Iran's older treasures, like the mosques of Isfahan.

We need to look at the resurrection of Iran's modern art collection, surely, with a bit of that sardonic realism with which Hughes saw its original acquisition. It will be lovely if all those extremely fine works by Pollock and Picasso and practically everyone else of significance in art history from the 1880s to 1970s are released from the dark. Iran has the makings of an extremely fine museum of modern art, if it chooses to display these treasures to the full within the building created for them. But why now?

Tensions with Israel and the US could not be higher. This is clearly a good moment for Iran to show a liberal, cultured face. Nothing makes the west go weak at the cultural knees more effectively than modern art, so why should Tehran not share in the kudos that a contemporary art spree has recently brought Dubai?

The modern art treasures this collection boasts are splendid and well-chosen. Works by Mary Cassatt and Degas, by Francis Bacon and Roy Lichtenstein, give it real quality and depth. Tate Modern would be delighted to have some of these works. Jackson Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground was painted in 1950 at a critical moment in his breakthrough from a stumbling imitator of Picasso to a dizzying lassoist of curling colour. Magritte's Therapist is a bronze version of one of this surrealist metaphysician's most haunting images.

Iran is therefore on to a very good thing. It is sitting on a goldmine of modern art. It will win universal acclaim if it puts it on view. It is surprising how far a Warhol on the wall can go in changing perceptions of a state and its policies.


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June 20 2012

Andy Warhol: the case against

The Warhol redemption has reached saturation point. We need a break from the man who heralded an era of made-for-market art

Andy Warhol: The Case Against has just opened at Dulwich Picture Gallery. No, it hasn't. The exhibition is called Andy Warhol: The Portfolio. It is a survey of his career as a printmaker. The works come from the collection of the Bank of America, and together they are about as exciting as staring at dollar bills. Which Warhol liked to do, of course.

It starts well, with an image of police violence against civil-rights protesters that typifies the power of Warhol's best work. In the 1960s when he became famous this artist, who boasted of his own passivity, was an all-too-accurate eye, recording the violence of a revolutionary age. Even the flower prints in the first gallery here somehow reek of Vietnam.

Since his death, critics and curators have revealed more and more that is impressive about Warhol. He really did, at his best, have an extraordinary vision of modern life. But the Warhol redemption has reached saturation point. You can feel that in the current Hayward Gallery exhibition Invisible, in which the weakest thing by far is an empty plinth by Warhol. It just seems glib, and so do the prints here.

Even in the first room, by the end of the 60s, Warhol is churning out print runs that recreate his early Campbell's soup paintings. The sweet pedantry of the originals is replaced by glossy production values and easy money. The desire to exploit his own fame is not even concealed. Here we start to see Bad Andy, the source of so much that is cynical and empty in the art of today.

His readiness to turn anything at all into a brightly coloured Warhol print for the art market soon separated my visual and emotional responses. I turned into a caricature of Warhol. Gee, look at those grapes. Wow, Vesuvius erupting ... The impact weakens and dissolves: Warhol really did become totally bland and industrial in his later years. His Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century are especially inane.

Turning art into a mass-produced commodity, and the artist into a brand identity, Warhol at his worst anticipated what have become routine artistic strategies in a smoothed-out global art machine. He had a lot of a saving graces – but perhaps it would be good to have a break from Warhol until those can once again be rediscovered with the surprise this exhibition fails to elicit.

To be honest, I feel sorry for Dulwich Picture Gallery. It houses a tremendous collection of European oil paintings. How can it stay "relevant" in a time when the culture seems fixated on contemporary art? It's desperately trying to join in, but iisn't convincing. I think they do art history better and should stick with it.

Out on the lawn are some big colourful sculptures by Phillip Haas that recreate the strange art of Arcimboldo, the Renaissance painter whose heads made of fruit and flowers delighted Renaissance courts and still amaze today. These are fun, but Haas also has some heads in the gallery and these just get in the way of great old paintings. Dulwich is a fine place to contemplate Rembrandt. Why can't that be enough?

• Guardian Extra members can buy 2 admission tickets for the price of 1 to see Andy Warhol: The Portfolios at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 12 August 2012. For more information, go to guardian.co.uk/extra


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June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

Have you seen the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page? Share all your latest cultural snaps there

Show us your artworks with Share your art

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Sign up for the Art Weekly newsletter


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May 10 2012

Warhol Double Elvis sells for $37m at Sotheby's auction

Roy Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl and Ai Weiwei's Sunflowers attract record prices at Sotheby's contemporary art sale in New York

Andy Warhol's Double Elvis sold for $37m (£23m) and works by Roy Lichtenstein and the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei broke their own records at Sotheby's contemporary art sale on Wednesday.

Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl, depicting a woman with closed eyes and flowing blond hair, fetched $44.9m; Weiwei's one-tonne, handmade porcelain Sunflower Seeds brought $782,500.

Warhol's Double Elvis (Ferus Type), a silver silkscreen image of Elvis Presley depicted as a cowboy, fetched $37,042,500. It had been expected to sell for $30m-$50m. The auction house said it was the first Double Elvis to appear on the market since 1995. Warhol produced a series of 22 images of Elvis. Nine are in museum collections.

Elvis is shown armed and shooting from the hip, with a shadowy and faintly visible double in the background. It was offered for sale by a private American collector, who acquired it in 1977.

The record for a Warhol is $71.7m for his Green Car Crash Green Burning Car I, sold at Christie's in 2007.

Another major work on the auction block Francis Bacon's Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror sold for $44,882,500. The buyers' names for each of the four pieces were not released.

The sale came on the heels of art auction history. Last week the auction house sold a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream for $119.9m, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

"The reason for these record-breaking sales is, quite simply, the quality of material on show," said Michael Frahm, a contemporary art adviser at the London-based Frahm Ltd. "The key is quality."

Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl was one of a series of sexy comic book-inspired images created by the artist in the 1960s, The work was exhibited only once at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1989-90. It was sold by the estate of Los Angeles collectors and philanthropists Beatrice and Phillip Gersh, who were the founding members of MOCA.

Lichtenstein's I Can See the Whole Room! ... And There's Nobody In It! held the previous auction record for the artist. It sold for $43.2m at Christie's in November 2011.

Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds was one of an edition of 10 and was accompanied by a certificate signed by the artist. The ceramic seeds, which can be arranged in myriad shapes, were the subject of a Tate Modern exhibit in 2010. The previous Weiwei auction record was $657,000 for his Chandelier, set at Sotheby's in 2007.

Bacon's Figure Writing, which depicts the artist and his partner, George Dyer, writing at a table, was included in a 1977 Paris exhibition alongside Triptych, a 1976 work by the artist that sold for $86.2m at Sotheby's in 2008. It held the record for any contemporary artwork at auction until Tuesday night when Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow claimed that title when it sold at Christie's for $86.8m.

The Elvis silkscreen was exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963, the year it was created. The auction catalogue described the work, based on a movie publicity photo, as "the deification of a contemporary warrior-saint, the towering, pre-eminent idol bearing a deadly weapon as if protecting the mythical world of celebrity itself".


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May 07 2012

The Gunter Sachs appeal – life and legacy of the playboy art collector

Sotheby's to auction off trove of art treasures and memorabilia owned by the renowned playboy. Mark Brown, meets his son Rolf

Picture the scene. A ruggedly handsome, impeccably dressed man is enjoying a snack with his superstar wife, Brigitte Bardot, in St Tropez's Gorilla bar in the late spring of 1967. A pale, odd-looking white-haired man with a large entourage notices him and marches straight over, complaining that the Cannes film festival, of all places, has refused to screen his film because of its nudity. The man agrees to see the film, Chelsea Girls, and everyone bundles into speedboats and heads for the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette.

That chance meeting between the millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs and artist Andy Warhol had a profound effect on both men. For Sachs, a serious collector, it led to a sea change in his art buying; for Warhol it marked a vital first foothold in Europe.

Sachs became an assiduous collector of pop art and in 1972 opened a gallery in Hamburg. The Warhol exhibition he staged there was one of the first in Europe, although as Sachs's son Rolf recalls: "Nothing sold. My father was highly embarrassed, and he bought most of the exhibition himself – which was of course the best investment he ever made."

Rolf Sachs spoke to the Guardian ahead of a dazzling auction of artworks and objects that belonged to his late father. The Sachs family is selling following Gunter's death last year when, at 78, he turned a shotgun on himself.

Over two days, Sotheby's will sell a collection estimated to be worth more than £20m that includes art spanning surrealism, new realism and pop art, as well as furniture and personal objects. They shine an often fascinating light on a man who liked, perhaps more than anything, to enjoy himself.

"He had a great creativity for life, combined with a joie de vivre and an ability to live it," says Rolf. "He was interested in the zeitgeist."

Categorising Gunter Sachs is tricky. Sotheby's describes him in the catalogue as a "playboy, businessman, gallerist, museum director, art collector, film-maker, celebrity, photographer, astrologer, director and sportsman".

Certainly he was the man of a thousand stories. He created the Dracula Club, an exclusive private members' club in St Moritz; he was vice-president of the Cresta Run, an epic skeleton bob run also in St Moritz; he encouraged Salvador Dalí to shoot a gun in his penthouse and, of course, he married one of the most famous women in the world. He proposed to Bardot by dropping hundreds of roses on her villa from a helicopter before diving into the Mediterranean and emerging from the sea.

Something beautiful

Was it really like that? "I wasn't there," says Rolf, smiling. "It gets embellished every time, but so what? It has something beautiful about it. Stories should have a poetic, dreaming effect." The couple married in Vegas, honeymooned in Tahiti and divorced as friends in 1969, both of them having had affairs.

Born in Germany in 1932, Gunter Sachs inherited fortunes from his mother's side of the family – she was daughter of Wilhelm von Opel of the car-making dynasty – and his father, who owned Fichtel Sachs, one of Germany's largest automobile suppliers.

He located to France in 1958 which in itself was a brave move, says Rolf. "It took a special character to go and live in Paris in 1958 – which was 13 years after the war – as a German. It probably was quite difficult."

At the time, Sachs did not have huge amounts of disposable cash so he would spend his afternoons playing cards – at which he was extremely good. "He wasn't that wealthy then. Father would play ecarté with friends in the afternoon and he would invest his profits in art. At the time nobody was really buying art, people were building up their businesses, everything had been shattered."

Sachs began buying works by the likes of Yves Klein, Jean Fautrier, César and Arman, who are far better known today than they were at the time. "He bought it for the love of the art."

Sachs collected with passion and skill; he was an aesthete, says Rolf, who is a professional artist and designer himself partly as a result of his upbringing. "I was very much aware of the art in the house and as an eight-year-old I knew every painter, I knew every painting. I had a very strong relationship with all the art we had."

Sachs is mentioned in Warhol's memoirs as one of the young Europeans who went to New York and had the whole Studio 54 experience. "At the time you didn't think much of it, but it was fun. You don't appreciate those moments enough because you don't realise."

Surrealist work

Sotheby's has described the sale as "among the most desirable single-owner collections ever to come to market", but it is only part of what was an extraordinary collection. Sachs collected surrealist work by the likes of Dalí, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte and Max Ernst. He owned important pieces from the new realism school including Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and Martial Raysse. And there were works that could be described as art informel, including pieces by his friend Fautrier whose studio in the early years of the war was a refuge for intellectuals and artists associated with the Resistance.

Sachs decorated his homes and hotel penthouse suites with the most fabulous art and furniture. He had Lichtensteins in his bathroom, a Warhol Campbell's Soup in his kitchen, a Mel Ramos Banana Split in the guest bedroom. He commissioned a table direct from the sculptor and designer Diego Giacometti and was a big fan of Allen Jones, a star of 1960s British pop art, and had a set of his furniture that used fetishistic female mannequins.

Jones once recalled staying in Sachs' St Moritz Palace Hotel penthouse. "It was the most ritzy place I had ever been in. One wall of the apartment seemed to be entirely glass, with a breathtaking view of the Alps. There were Lichtenstein panels around the bathroom, a flock of Lalanne sheep on the carpet and the set of my sculptures."

If he had stayed at another time he would have seen Warhol's 1974 portrait of Bardot taking pride of place in a kind of pop art concept apartment. One of the last Warhol's Sachs bought was in 1998 – Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) which Warhol produced in 1986, a year before his death – and it is being sold for between £2m-£3m.

Another talking point in his penthouse suite was a bulletproof glass panel which Sachs would cheerfully stand behind and ask guests – Dalí was one – to shoot.

Works in the sale include Les Feux de L'Enfer, a piece Klein made using an industrial blowtorch at a state-owned gas research facility near Paris; pieces by Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí; and a thickly painted gold canvas by Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1961), estimated up to £900,000.

"There was never a thought of it being an investment," says Rolf. "In fact, he stopped collecting in the 1970s because he was disillusioned with the art market – it became so aggressive. It had a strong business component."

Not that he entirely lost his love for it. "He always wanted to find the new, and even at 72, he started collecting graffiti art. We have tons of it," says Rolf. "It shows a curious mind, a young mind, looking for what is the next thing and what is the next trend."

Speaking of his father's death, Rolf says: "It came as a big shock to us all, but as a family we are not bitter towards him … I admire the courage."

It has been suggested that he feared the onset of Alzheimer's: "Perhaps in his mind it was speculation. Whenever something like this happens, obviously, there is chemistry involved. Chemical imbalances, which do things to your mind."

The decision to sell the works was taken as a family, and Rolf stresses they are keeping the items that hold the most importance for them. "People have said, 'Oh my god, you're selling the collection,' but the real core of his collection is staying in the family." He adds that they want to do a museum exhibition at the Villa Stuck in Munich in October.

Fond memories

Rolf Sachs has many fond memories of growing up. He remembers Bardot as his step-mum – "she was very kind to me, very sweet. I have only the fondest memories of her." He remembers one of Sachs' girlfriends, the Swiss biscuit heiress and champion water-skier Marina Doria going back and forward, back and forward in front of the house, pulled by Riva, a speedboat that is also in the sale.

He remembers the parties his dad would organise. "He made some of the most spectacular parties. Everyone would dress up, there was always wonderful music. Once he did a party where he played as if there was a hold up and everyone was surrounded [laughing] and people were getting frightened.

"A lot of fun people surrounded him, people who were spirited, who were good laughs."

Rolf Sachs has taken on some of the responsibilities his father had such as being vice-president of the Cresta Run and on the day the Guardian talked to Rolf he was beaming with pride at a purchase he had made at auction that day: a vampire killing set from around 1900 which he can't wait to show fellow members of the the Dracula Club. It is meant to be the most select club in St Moritz but Rolf says it is full of fun-loving. "Father created it and it is a very nice group of friends. Every member loves being part of bloodlessness."

Gunter Sachs was also interested in astrology, publishing a bestselling book on the subject and creating the grandly titled Institute for the Empirical and Mathematical Examination of the Possible Truth of Astrology in Relation to Human Behaviour.

Two months ago Rolf floated 3,500 candles on the lake in St Moritz in the shape of Scorpio in memory of his father.

There are clearly things going into the sale tinged with regret but Rolf says the family tried to create a rounded sale that was also fun, so there are pieces of art estimated in the hundreds of pounds up to one of Warhol's Brigitte Bardot canvases, estimated at £3m to £4m.

The auction will be held at Sotheby's on 22 and 23 May. Highlights go on show in London from 18-22 May and in New York from 5-9 May.


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March 31 2012

Gillian Wearing; Patrick Keiller

Whitechapel Art Gallery; Tate Britain, London

At almost 50, Gillian Wearing is still making art to divide the audience. The curators of this show, for instance, appear moved by her little figurines of everyday heroes – a hoodie who turns out to be a brave police cadet, a woman who helped out on 9/11 – where others may find them cutesy and mawkish. If you're going, take a friend and see whether you can agree on the moral, aesthetic and emotional values of her work. To me, these are constantly in doubt.

The Whitechapel show is superbly staged, at least, and has all the classics: Trauma, in which adults disclose dreadful childhood memories on the small screen; Drunk, with its street drinkers staggering through elaborate fights and reconciliations in life-size triple-screen projection. The policemen keeping agonisingly still in Sixty Minute Silence; the much-plagiarised photographs of people holding signs inscribed with their inner thoughts – "I'm Desperate", "Mary come back".

Anyone unfamiliar with the old arguments about Wearing will find them conveniently revived in a dozen films from the past two decades. Intrusion, manipulation, voyeurism, exploitation: all these charges are courted by the works themselves, with their distinctive presentation of authenticity in the form of conspicuous staging.

Each film asks you to consider what is true, what is performed or real, and what, if anything, can be known about the subjects. Which has sometimes amounted to very little – who was the eponymous Woman with the bandaged face I saw yesterday down Walworth Road?– or, at times, nothing.

Take the latest series of photographic portraits in which Wearing plays many parts, from her parents and grandparents to artistic forebears such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. The artist squeezes into a latex mask or body suit, holds the pose of grandmother, mother, father or brother and disappears into the period photograph.

Wearing's contribution is the idea (and the wearing, so to speak). The skill is in the illusions themselves. So plausible are these prosthetic faces that the join is barely visible in the rim where mask meets eye, except when deliberately exposed; a magic extended to costume, scenario and lighting.

Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto – the influence of these quick-change artists is everywhere apparent. But unlike Sherman, Wearing does not create characters; and unlike Sugimoto, she does not create appearances.

Wearing as Claude Cahun has a touch of wit in the Wearing-faced mask dangling like an attribute from Cahun's hand. But this marvellous French artist did not assume masks as a trope. To be outside society, to be misunderstood, to live in disguise (she was a resistance heroine): Cahun's self-portraits admit the miseries of a double life just as they acknowledge how strange one can seem even to oneself.

Wearing, on the other hand, is only trying on other people's faces. It is true that a strong family likeness emerges in that series (though how can one know, since all eyes belong to Wearing?). It is also true that some kind of homage is implied in recreating oneself in the image of other artists.

But that Wearing can be made to look exactly like all these different people is mainly what strikes – that and the peculiar lack of affect. After the showbusiness double take, these pictures are perfectly blank. Even when Wearing appears as a three year-old, the image does not occasion mortal questions so much as curiosity to know how the trick was achieved.

These feats of wizardry are a prelude to the confessional booths that follow, where people in masks "confess" to Secrets and Lies. Domestic violence, childhood beatings, rape, murder: the monologues are harrowing. They are also strictly produced. Nobody talks for more than an allotted few minutes, so that the bare outline of hell is all anyone can offer. The disguise is always a distraction, generally because the discrepancy between what is being said and the mask from which it issues is so extreme – the woman whose husband tried to strangle her, for instance, is got up in a candy-coloured top, matching lipstick and blusher.

This feels indiscriminate or sententious, depending on your viewpoint. At worst, it undermines the speaker. They talk, we listen, the experience all round is botched, unfulfilled, incomplete.

In Bully, a victim re-enacts his suffering with the aid of a group of strangers, whom he is encouraged to cast and direct. The film begins with finger jabbing and ends with near-violence. But it's never clear whether catharsis takes place, nor (typical twist) whether everyone is truly acting. How can one know: that remains Wearing's default position. She doesn't ask, and she doesn't want us to ask.

People are strange, people are not what they seem, nobody can be fully understood. Wearing's art is often heavy with platitude. Her strongest works, to me, have their roots in reality but raise the artifice to dramatic heights – films such as Sacha and Mum with its noh-like ritualisation of a mother-daughter relationship, and the unforgettable 2 Into 1.

Here, Wearing films a mother talking about her 10-year-old twins, and vice versa, then has each lipsynch the other's monologues in turn. As each speech is uttered, family secrets are devastatingly corroborated by the body language. "Lawrence is gorgeous, I love every inch of him," declares Lawrence, smirking at his mother's praise. Mute, resigned, Lawrence's twin grits his teeth alongside.

At Tate Britain, Patrick Keiller has been given the whole length of the Duveen galleries to reprise one of his cult films by other means. Robinson in Ruins plays silently on a giant screen while pictures selected from the Tate archive act as further illustrations and, indeed, stills to the film's fictional journey through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

Robinson, it may be recalled, is that mysterious academic from the University of Barking (sic) whose travels through psychogeography are reminiscent of Iain Sinclair. His is an England haunted by white horses and neolithic rings, henges and pylons, nuclear plants and power stations. It is sepulchral, apocalyptic, wondrous and political; and so is much of the art.

Turner's shipwreck bristles alongside Muirhead Bone's drawing of the British Museum Reading Room under construction: each a dark chaos of struts. Black cloudscapes by Alexander Cozens glower behind real chunks of the meteorite that landed in Yorkshire in 1795, the same year as the Poor Removal Act; and here are victims of that act in portraits.

The journey proceeds through coincidence, proximity, visual affinity. Sometimes it's predictable – Blake versus Constable, Greenham Common, Quatermass, Peter Kennard's deathless Haywain with Cruise Missiles. But there are revelations along the way: the overlooked Susanna Duncombe, tremendous explosions by Leonard Rosoman and Paul Nash, Keiller's own photographs of sackcloth ghouls windblown in the hedgerows and overgrown milestones once sponsored by RBS.

This is art as consciousness-raising, to some extent, but it is also addictive and immersive. And Keiller's offbeat humour is at play in the situationist cartoons and the riffs on Goethe, romanticism and the picturesque. His gift, as in the films, lies in plucking images from the landscape and holding them to the light for contemplation, and he could have gone on and on for ever, it seems to me. But what is here will suffice to make one ruminate on the museum and the world outside in a different way.


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February 22 2012

Andy Warhol: beyond cool

25 years after his death, a new online film reduces Warhol to trashy cypher – but his art was subtle and profound

Andy Warhol died a quarter of a century ago today, on 22 February, 1987. He is in no danger of being forgotten. But what, exactly, is he being remembered for?

To mark today's anniversary, a new 40-minute film called Andy X, directed by Jim Sharman, who made the Rocky Horror Picture Show, is being released online. You can pay to watch, or alternatively Facebook users can use friends as currency, which is clearly a very Warholian idea. At least, it's the kind of idea we instantly label "Warholian", without thinking about what it really has to do with Warhol or his art. This is part of the problem when remembering Andy Warhol.

More problems arise when you actually look at Sharman's film. It's a musical. OK. It is not the first quasi-operatic meditation on Warhol; this has been done before, by John Cale and Lou Reed on their album Songs for Drella. The briefly reunited, antagonistic former leaders of Warhol's "pop group" the Velvet Underground had several advantages when it came to devising a musical homage to Warhol. For one thing they knew him personally, and for another, they were (and are) giants of alternative rock. Any comparisons with Andy X are cruel, so I won't labour them.

Leaving aside the film's artistic quality, what it says, or does not say about Warhol is revealing. Andy X is all about the image of Warhol – an image the makers seem to have received from sources ranging from other films to sensationalist biographies, but not from Warhol's own art or writings, nor the analyses of people who knew him. It is, consequently, another regurgitation of empty Andy, glamorous Andy, fame-obsessed Andy.

The real Andy Warhol, behind this trashy myth, produced some of the starkest and most compelling images in 20th-century art. His car crash paintings, screen tests, and late religious works reinventing the Last Supper are serious, incredibly human and compassionate works. Warhol was a true artist who restlessly experimented, invented, and confronted the realities of the modern world. His laconic literary and speaking style is itself a monument of modern American culture, a voice to set among those of novelists from F Scott Fitzgerald onwards, who have captured the brittle beauties of the American dream.

Warhol deserves to be remembered for his subtle and honest art, but he seems fated to be remembered more as an "icon" – reduced to an emblem of modern cool. "I'll be your mirror", as the Velvet Underground sang. Warhol was a mirror, which has always been one of the great functions of art. In the end, it does not matter how many fictions are spun about him; this simple, reflective truth will always wait at the heart of the myth. When you find it, you will know by the tingling of your spine.


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Andy Warhol's legacy – 25 years on

15 minutes of fame? The artist whose radical ideas galvanised the 1960s art world continues to dominate the market and permeate popular culture – 25 years after his death

On 22 February 1987, Andy Warhol died unexpectedly in a New York hospital after a routine operation on his gallbladder. Yet 25 years on, the artist described by Truman Capote, quoting Wilde, as "a sphinx without a secret" has never gone away. Not only does Warhol dominate the art market, with his work accounting for one-sixth of contemporary art sales, his influence permeates both high art and popular culture.

Warhol's work is rarely out of circulation in galleries. A show at the De La Warr Pavilion in east Sussex closes this week, but another, of his portfolio prints, starts at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London this summer. The artists he influenced are even more visible. Next month, artist Gillian Wearing, who once photographed herself dressed as Warhol, will show a retrospective of her work at the Whitechapel, while Jeremy Deller, who hung out at Warhol's studio, the Factory, in the summer of 1986, is just about to launch a retrospective at London's Hayward.

"I think Warhol changed film and documentary forever," says Wearing. "He was completely seminal in that area. His extremely long takes, his exploration of improvisation between fiction and reality came about through his playful and irreverent manner, and gave the world new ways of looking."

Warhol's radical idea that the stuff of modern life could be art, from Campbell's soup cans to washing-powder boxes, galvanised the art world in the 60s. "I went to see his 1989 retrospective at Moma," remembers cultural historian Jon Savage. "You walked into the 60s rooms and there it all was – America. Money, sex, fame, death. Warhol summed, up, defined and in many ways embodied the world in which we now live. Everyone thinks he's emotionless and soulless, but the cumulative effect of seeing all the Marilyns and Orange Disasters is extremely powerful – it's not just a mirror," he says, referring to the verdict of art critic Robert Hughes.

Yet it is the sheer range of Warhol's work which has made his influence all-pervasive. As Wearing puts it: "Warhol left his mark in many more ways than his actual work". As well as the paintings, and the films he made of acolytes of the Factory sleeping, taking drugs or, in the case of the self-explanatory Blow Job, receiving oral sex, Warhol created a celebrity magazine, Interview; produced the Velvet Underground's first album; wrote (or dictated) voluminous diaries, and was impresario and mentor to a host of "superstars" – followers who came to find fame, or soak up the atmosphere, and became the subjects of his work.

Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern, says that the Factory blended people from different backgrounds in a kind of social experiment. "You would have somebody like Valerie Solanas" – the radical feminist writer who shot Warhol in 1968 – "a German countess; a bum from the Bowery and some artists from suburban America who'd come to NY to make it." Deller remembers being inspired by seeing the variety of activities that were happening in the Factory and realising that they were all down to one man, "not a corporation or a big business".

"One of Andy's great innovations was realising that the idea of the artist alone in his studio was not a particularly modern one, and that an artist could have a team," says Glenn O'Brien, a journalist who worked with Warhol on Interview. "Today you have artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst who employ hundreds of people – it's a very understandable model for artists. And there are people in other fields like fashion, like Marc Jacobs, who has that sort of entrepeneurial sensibility."

However, it is Warhol's view of fame that seems to have predicted 21st-century culture. In a critique of the Hollywood star system, Warhol turned the likes of the Santa Barbara heiress Edie Sedgwick into celebrities, instinctively grasping decades before YouTube or reality TV that people need not be famous for acting, singing or doing anything other than being themselves.

Comer believes that Warhol's famous 1968 statement – "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" – showed an intuitive understanding not just of our appetite for stars, but of the way the media would become more pervasive. "He understood that the Hollywood studio system was giving way to something where far more people were going to be on camera and on screen. Now, on CCTV cameras, we're all filmed and photographed thousands of times a day. Warhol realised that we were becoming more than bodies – we were becoming images. The way that we all became part of the media machine is something that he understood very early."

This process has been accelerated by the internet, which Warhol did not live to see. O'Brien says that his "gift for aphorisms" would have made him a natural at Twitter: "Even though he was a man of few words they were always well chosen."

Deller points out that the things the web facillitates best – shopping, gossiping, sharing – were some of the artist's central preoccuptions. "He would have been a master of the internet. He would have set up an auction website, a gossip website, a film sharing website. He was someone who liked to collect images and liked to collect things, and have his finger in a lot of different pies."

Deller warns against boiling Warhol down to a preoccupation with money, artifice or celebrity culture, pointing out that "he's a lot more complicated and critical than he gets credit for". After Warhol's death, the art world was shocked by his secret life. He turned out to have been a devout Catholic who visited church every day, though his work was often suffused with sex and drugs: a large strand of it validated queer and trans culture at a time when the gay liberation movement had barely begun.

Warhol's art and ideas remain controversial: last year an article by Brian Appleyard in the Economist predicted that art history would see Warhol restored to "his rightful place – as a briefly brilliant and very poignant recorder of the dazzling surface of where we are now". Yet his influence seems destined to endure for the forseeable future.

"He understood the very core of how industry and society and economics come together," says Comer. "Until capitalism ends, his influence will be irrevocable."


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January 29 2012

Jeremy Deller: 'I'm more interested in ideas than money'

Why is the artist spending a week in a cave full of bats with just a large tub of nuts for company?

A small figure in an oversized Flowered Up T-shirt dances around the rim of a dark and very fetid cave. "Shit!" says Jeremy Deller. "Woah!" He ducks as the first bat rising from the crater crashes into him. In the silence of the Texan countryside, the stirring of millions of bats below ground is like the wind getting up. Then the occupants of the cave emerge in a spiralling column, rising into the sky like smoke.

There is lightning on the horizon, a storm coming in, and the flitter of bat wings sounds like a gentle rain on leaves. The bat detector haphazardly taped to the top of one of Deller's three cameras makes a frantic squelching noise. "It's a sort of electronic music, isn't it?" says the Turner prize-winning artist delightedly, filming the sunset emergence of one of the largest gatherings of mammals in the world.

Apart from the bats, the biggest attraction in this desolate corner of Texas is the state's largest live oak tree. On the road to Utopia, every vehicle is an enormous pickup. We pass a dead armadillo and stop in a metal shed for a hot taco lunch. It has been 38C (100F)for 100 days. Crows peck the eyes of a dead deer. Deller has travelled to these bone-dry creeks to gather footage for an "unbearable" 3D nature film, the climax to his new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called Joy In People. Given that title, a bat film is a typically unexpected touch.

With his slight frame and darting, curious eyes, there is something of the elf about Deller. The 45-year-old plans to survive the week filming bats on a large tub of mixed nuts. The last time he was in the US he turned orange from drinking too much carrot juice. "I don't really cook," he says dryly. It is surprising that such an English eccentric is not only fond of America but owns a piece of it. He bought five acres near Death Valley for $2,000. "I've got a skyscraper, an oil rig, helipad," he says. A sly joke is never far away. He bought the land with his residency money from an American museum. He doesn't know if the museum approved. But he did use it for art – a friend recorded a live album of banjo music there.

His life as an artist was awakened by an American: as a shy 20-year-old who hadn't studied art, he met Andy Warhol at the Ritz on the artist's last visit to Britain. "I was young, definitely, and relatively pretty," says Deller. "When I met him in London, he said to me and my mate: 'Oh you should come out to the Factory – we're doing something for MTV.' I thought, I'm actually going to take up this offer because this is never going to happen again. And so I did." He hung out with Warhol in New York, gossiping, and saw that "you can create your own world, which is what he did. It was definitely a moment of clarity. I thought I would try to get by on my wits creatively, whatever that meant."

When Deller was a child growing up in south London, his father, who worked in local government, would take him to galleries and museums. "When you go as a child, you're not intimidated by it when you grow up. You just think it's something that you can do," he says. Deller studied history of art at university and then got a "small taste" of office work "nearly killed me". So he lived at home for most of his 20s devising small-scale "interventions" – road signs on the streets commemorating Beatles manager Brian Epstein (about whom Deller had a curious fixation) and bumper stickers reading "I love joyriding" which he attached to a police car in Middlesbrough. His parents were baffled and Deller says he didn't enjoy it at the time – his biggest success was selling his T-shirts declaring "My booze hell" and "My drug shame" in tabloid headlines at Covent Garden – but these years of "semi-employment" sound like a wellspring of creativity. "Everyone has the potential to be creative. It's just having the time and the space. I don't think artists are special. A lot of people do. That's the great product of marketing artists – 'they are different and special'. I don't believe that. You see as much creativity outside the art world as inside it. I mean, all children are creative."

Deller's Hayward show, which he calls his "mid-career retrospective", will celebrate this period with a recreation of his childhood bedroom and his first ever exhibition, held at home while his parents were on holiday. He has retrieved "all the crap" still lodged in his parents' home; stuff under his old bed is now part of an exhibition. "It's become official art now," he says, amused. His life as art; it sounds like his Tracey Emin moment. "Sort of. Don't say that," he whispers sotto voce. "Horrible thought. I can't bear her." Can visitors bounce on your childhood bed? "Yes," he says very decisively.

Deller's breakthrough came in 1997, when he persuaded a brass band to perform house music. The result, Acid Brass, attracted loads of admirers (his favourite track was What Time Is Love? by KLF) "and I realised from then on, I can do this and I can do it the way I want to do it. I don't have to make things any more, I can just work with people, and do these funny projects." In 2001, Deller persuaded former miners and police to restage the "battle of Orgreave", the seminal conflict in the miners' strike, as if it were a medieval re-enactment. "Some people would just see that as wrong – to expect former miners to relive this terrible moment in their lives and in the history of mining in Britain. Often what I ask people to do might seem a bit, well, 'wrong' is probably the best word really, or slightly absurd. It's the way you handle it that makes it OK. It's very easy to exploit people, isn't it? It's one of the easiest things to do."

For an artist known for his generous, collaborative approach, working with animals is "a tricky relationship". Deller tries to "do things that aren't exploitative even if the idea itself seems to be ridiculous or absurd, like the recreation of the battle in the miners' strike," he explains when we retreat from the bat cave to the porch of his log cabin. He sits in a rocking chair and I offer him a pack of repugnant beef jerky, hoping he might devour it "as I tear apart my peers, eating them alive", nods Deller. Disappointingly, he is a recent convert to vegetariansim and has also vowed not to talk so freely about fellow artists after a Guardian interview a few years ago in which he slagged off both Emin and Damien Hirst. Only later I learn that Deller breaks his vegetarian vows in spectacular style at the Hog Pit, a Texan eatery favoured by the biker community.

Why bats? One evening Deller was watching School of Saatchi – a reality TV show in which Charles Saatchi set out to discover the next big thing. "There was some poor sod trying to cut a piece of wood and create a sculpture and I turned over to BBC1 and it was David Attenborough and time-lapse photography of sea anemones under Arctic ice. The art in that photography was so much more amazing than someone trying to create a crappy sculpture."

Deller filmed the bats here once before as an unpredictable end to Memory Bucket, his 2003 film about Texas which became part of his Turner prize-winning exhibition, but was not happy with the results. He says he is "interested in the way they can co-exist pretty peacefully with each other. It's incredible to live as close to other mammals. We can't do it." He wonders how well this explains his desire to make a better bat movie. "I do it because I can do it. I'm allowed to do it. A lot of art – or certainly what I do – is related to that; having an opportunity."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Deller has resisted the opportunity to make money. His work cannot be easily commodified. At times his projects seem almost wilful financial suicide. He lives in a modest flat on the grimy Holloway Road, north London, with his girlfriend, Tasha Amini, "a proper artist" – a painter. "There's enough stuff in the world," he says of churning out artistic objects. "I'm definitely more interested in ideas than I am in money. A disregard for money is always interesting." Are contemporary artists too motivated by money? "Some are. And that's a legacy of Andy Warhol."

For someone who eschews commodification, his love of Warhol may seem odd but Deller argues a celebration of materialism was only part of Warhol's legacy. "Because his art sells for so much, that's all people can think of when they think of him now – money. Actually his legacy is about ideas."

Deller venerates ideas. Part of his exhibition includes a section called My Failures – ideas that were never realised. These are variously silly (getting Iggy Pop to pose for life-drawing classes before a group of unsuspecting artists), brave (proposing a statue of Dr David Kelly looking as if he was about to jump from the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square) and thought-provoking. "I like art that exists in people's minds more so than it does in reality," he says – art that people tell each other about. In the 1970s, the artist Chris Burden was shot in the arm with a gun as a piece of work. "I doubt if he made much money out of that but as an idea they don't come much stronger, and you'll never forget that I've told you that."

Whether what Deller does is art, and where you find him in his work, troubles some critics. On a previous visit to America he toured the country with an Iraqi man, a US soldier and a car that had been blown up by a Baghdad bomb. This provocation must have created a great debate, especially when they pulled up at the rightwing college that hosts George W Bush's library. Actually, says Deller, it was more a "conversation piece". This is a characteristic choice of words. "Initially we were terrified we were going to get shot or lynched," he says. But the most grief he got was from anti-war protesters who demanded he make explicitly political statements with the bombed car. "We wanted to make it more neutral so anyone could talk to us and didn't feel like they were being used," he says. "It's almost a scientific experiment – what would happen if you added this car with these people to a trip around America? I was standing back and observing the reaction. I'm not necessarily in the middle of the work or getting in its way but I'm definitely on the edges of it, the fringes, seeing how it all goes."

And so it is with the bats. While Deller records some sound, takes stills and edits the final film, the 3D shoot is undertaken by a group of quirky Americans. ("Our musician makes gothic music. Our voiceover man sounds like he is from a horror film. Our offices are black inside. We have a very alternative group of people," says the 3D boss Greg Passmore, who arrives with two colleagues in a big RV, a pink-haired German and a pale-skinned young cameraman who looks like he might live in a bat cave.) Artists shape and sculpt things. Deller doesn't. "I like that losing control of projects and letting people take some sort of ownership and get on with it in their own way. It doesn't bother me. I'm not a control freak and I'm not a very technical person but maybe I'm a bit lazy as well."

Deller resists "that old view of the artist being an exceptional person or a shaman" so strongly that some critics question whether he is an artist at all. He believes debates over whether his collaborations are art or not are a dull media preoccupation. "The public don't mind. They are not interested. If something is good and interesting and they enjoy it … Whether it is 'art' or not is not really part of the conversation," he says. "The public are ahead of the media."

Deller has a knack for being perceptibly ahead of trends. A decade ago he was collaborating with the Women's Institute, celebrating traditional craft skills and folk art. Now flower arranging, knitting and Keep Calm and Carry On needleworks are mainstream. The real world quickly catches up with Deller's subversions. He once made a £250 cocktail at Stringfellows; now there are £35,000 cocktails on offer in London clubs. "If culture is keeping up with you it's a kind of competition and I don't mind that," he says. His bat film fits into the current vogue for artists such as Björk and Chris Watson to produce work directly inspired by the natural world. "It's not a terrible thing to be associated with," says Deller agreeably.

Back in London, Deller sits in his flat editing the 3D bat film. From the first flashes of thousands of bats clinging to the cave roof, pink mouths opening like baby birds, it slowly builds into a visceral swarm in flight. The bats move so fast they look like an abstract pattern; even slowed down, their screams sound like Space Invaders. Towards the end of the seven-minute film, the emergence of bats slows, and a weird, restless tranquillity returns, just like the experience of this miraculous gathering of mammals in the wild. Deller wanted his film to be almost more than people could bear but is now having second thoughts. "You have to be very careful people aren't going to be running out screaming after two minutes," he says. "Kids will either really love it or it will traumatise them."

After bats, Deller has a busy year ahead of him: he is producing a show for Bruce Lacey, an octogenarian artist from Norfolk and "total bohemian" who has led the kind of extraordinary life with a flagrant disregard for money that Deller approves of. He also wants to make a bench from a compacted Range Rover. It sounds like a very pointed piece of art but, true to form, he will leave people to work out for themselves what the bench comes from. Giving what he calls "a useless object" a "social function" is political, he reluctantly concedes, "because I hate those cars. If ever I'm going to be killed in London it is probably by someone driving a Range Rover because they are the worst drivers. The people who drive them obviously have some sort of personality problem. Usually they are on the phone at the same time as they are driving it. And not indicating. They are borderline psychopaths, I imagine."

Jeremy Deller: Joy in People opens at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 on 22 February and runs until 13 May 2012


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The fine art of Barbie-sitting

How does the Barbie doll compare with the models who inspired the old masters? Artist Jocelyne Grivaud set out to discover



December 22 2011

John Chamberlain, sculptor who used crushed-up cars, dies

Hard drinker who became famous in the early 1960s for using rusting parts of wrecked Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles

John Chamberlain, the artist who introduced crushed-up cars into art galleries, has died in New York aged 84.

He became famous in the early 1960s for his sculptures made from the rusting parts of wrecked Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. Some critics compared the sculptures' folds and bleached-out colours to the work of Chamberlain's mentors Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

Almost inevitably, in 1973 two sculptures were mistaken for scrap metal and towed away from outside a gallery warehouse in Chicago.

Chamberlain discovered that scrap metal could be used as a material for sculpture in 1957. His first work was called Shortstop and was made out of two fenders repeatedly run over by a truck.

"It was like, God, I finally found an art supply, and it was so cheap it just made you laugh," he later said. "I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually: it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another."

Brought up in Chicago, Chamberlain moved to New York in the 1950s and developed a hard-drinking reputation in the bohemian Greenwich Village.

He was once arrested after brawling with a policeman, and later joked to a journalist: "I once had a drink with Billie Holiday, and I smoked a joint with Louis Armstrong. Those are my real claims to fame."

Chamberlain bridged the worlds of pop art, minimalism and abstract expressionism. Some critics were perturbed by the apparent randomness of his work, with one, Peter Schjeldahl, concluding that "the mangle is the message".

By the late 60s, Chamberlain had become frustrated with the way he was so closely associated with car parts. He started making sculptures out of urethane foam, some of which took the form of sofas, one version of which was put into production in Italy.

He experimented with large-format photography and in 1968 made a cult film, The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez, which starred Andy Warhol acolytes Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet and boasted, according to the All Movie Guide, "gymnastic sexual liaisons in a variety of places, including trees".

His work was less popular in Europe, where the mythology of the car has less resonance – though he rejected interpretations of his work as examining American consumerism or desire for freedom.

Nevertheless, it clearly prefigures the work of later artists who made art out of parts of cars, from the French artist César to Richard Prince. A retrospective of Chamberlain's work, which the artist helped put together, will show at the Guggenheim museum in New York in February, also the venue of his first retrospective in 1971. The gallery said it was saddened by the news of his death.


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October 27 2011

Warhol: Bardot / Gagosian Gallery, London

The exhibition Warhol: Bardot at Gagosian Gallery Davies Street in London brings together two icons: Andy Warhol and Brigitte Bardot. Based on a photograph taken by Richard Avedon in 1959, Andy Warhol created a series of portraits using the techniques and style he is known for. Five of the works on show have never been exhibited publicly before, and never together in series. In this video, we have a closer look at Andy Warhol’s portrait series of Brigitte Bardot. The exhibition runs until November 12, 2011.

Warhol: Bardot. Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London. October 10, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

Press release:

Warhol’s Bardots Come to London

Brigitte Bardot was one of the first women to be really modern and treat men like love objects, buying them and discarding them. I like that. — Andy Warhol

An exhibition of Andy Warhol’s rarely seen portraits of Brigitte Bardot will go on show at Gagosian Davies Street from 10 October –12 November 2011.

Warhol first met Bardot at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967 when she actively supported his attempt to show The Chelsea Girls there after the original planned screening had been cancelled. In 1973, at the height of her fame, she announced her retirement from making films. That same year Warhol received the commission to make her portrait. At this time that he was shifting his focus from filmmaking back to painting and perhaps viewed her coincidental screen exit as the perfect opportunity to commemorate and idolize her in art.

At the time of the commission, Bardot was as beautiful and famous as ever, her smouldering gaze, flowing blonde hair, and inimitable pout epitomizing the free-spirited energy and sexual allure that defined a new era. In these portraits of her, based on an arresting photograph taken by Richard Avedon in 1959, Warhol applied similar formal techniques to those he used in his portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor — a cropped frontal viewpoint and contrasting palette (blue/red, pink/purple, green/black) with vivid primary accents on eyes and lips. In each of the paintings, Bardot’s carnal beauty fills the square canvas in the manner of a record cover, her voluptuous, leonine features framed by abundant, tousled hair.

Bardot was the original sex kitten, a superstar of French New Wave cinema and an icon of feminine sensuality. Aged eighteen, she gained sudden and worldwide notoriety for her steamy role in Roger Vadim’s directorial debut, And God Created Woman (1956), which broke box-office records and censorship taboos with its titillating display of sex and eroticism in St Tropez. Despite mixed critical reviews, the film launched her career and presaged her international stardom. Bardot also caught the attention of French intellectuals: she was the subject of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome,” which described her as a “locomotive of women’s history”, building upon existentialist themes to declare her the most liberated woman of post-war France. Her crowning achievement occurred in 1963 as Camille in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Contempt, based on Alberto Moravia’s emotionally raw account of a marital break-up, set against the intrigues of the international film industry.
   
A fully illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition, with essays by Warhol collaborator and writer Glenn O’Brien and Purple Magazine editor Olivier Zahm.
 
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is widely regarded as a defining figure not only of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s but of an entire cultural era. He worked prodigiously across a vast range of media, including painting, photography, print-making, drawing, sculpture, film (sixty experimental films between 1963 and 1968), television (“Andy Warhol’s TV,” 1982 and “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” 1986), publishing (Interview magazine, books, and catalogues), happenings, and performances. He also endorsed products, appeared in advertisements and made business deals, giving new currency to the philosophical and practical interplay between art as a reflection upon society and art as a product of society. His work has been the subject of countless exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world. Recent exhibitions include “The Last Decade.” Milwaukee Art Museum (2009, traveled to Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art); “Motion Pictures,” Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); and “The Early Sixties,” Kunstmuseum Basel (2010).


October 07 2011

Frieze, Warhol, Hirst – the week in art (and money)

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Jonathan Jones's top shows to see this week

Claude
The spontaneous drawings of this French artist in 17th-century Italy offer a radically new persecutive on how he imagined his dreamlike paintings of myth, history, and landscape.
• At Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 8 January 2012

Tacita Dean
The most intelligent and serious British artist of her generation takes on the most theatrical and renowned venue of our times. There have been some wonderful and some ordinary installations in the Tate Turbine Hall but here is one that promises, at last, profundity.
• At Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London SE1 from 11 October until 11 March 2012

Frieze Art Fair
Aha ho, ooh, what to say. Art, money, crowds, hype, VIPs, MPs, squirrels drifting in from the park, that actor from whatsitcalled ... you will see them all here this weekend. It is even mentioned in Michel Houellebecq's latest novel. It is ... what it is.
• At Regent's Park, London NW1, from 13-16 October

Structure and Absence/Inside the White Cube
Fantastically huge commercial art space opens to coincide with aforementioned art fair. Should be worth a gander.
• At White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1, from 12 October until 26 November

Jamie Shovlin
This contemporary artist has put enigmatic works throughout the galleries of Tullie House in Carlisle, a fine museum close to Hadrian's Wall with one of the best Roman collections in the country.
• At Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, until 27 November

Up close: art and money

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908
This is an affectionate portrait of a great art dealer who helped at the birth of modern art. Vollard sold Renoir's works, but he also represented Picasso. He was a creative figure who commissioned ambitious works, and his name will be remembered forever in the title of Picasso's graphic masterpiece The Vollard Suite.
• At Courtauld Gallery, London WC2

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode, c1743
Long before art and money celebrated their marriage at Frieze, this great 18th-century satirist painted six jaw-dropping canvases that tell a tale of a dangerous liaison. In Hogarth's high society London, paintings are luxury items in posh drawing rooms, yet all the purchased culture in the world can't stop the rot of impotence, adultery, murder and syphilis.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1982
Warhol said the dollar was a beautiful currency. He drew it, screenprinted it, and here wonders at the power of the dollar sign in the 1980s, when greed was good.
• At De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until 26 February 2012

Damien Hirst, Controlled Substances Key Painting (4a), 1994
Warhol and Jeff Koons seemed to have said it all about art and money. But with works like this dot painting, Hirst made them look like cultural conservatives gingerly dipping their toes in the hot water of commerce. He has dived right in, auctioning his own works, mocking the art dealers who thought they owned him, becoming so rich it isn't business art any more, it's the art of business.
• At Leeds Art Gallery until 30 October

Parmigianino, Portrait of a Collector, c1523
The wealthy bankers and mercenary princes of Renaissance Italy invented the luxury art market as they delighted in antiquities and bold contemporary works. Parmigianino here portrays the kind of connoisseur who funded his own career as a daring mannerist who broke the rules of art and rebelled against classical proportion.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

What we learned this week

That Lucy Liu has been dumpster diving, and creating abstract art, for as long as she can remember

Why Manchester cathedral's been taken over by a giant plughole

How King Robbo launched a Banksy war in Bristol

How much skinheads, mods and rockers have moved on

Why farts float up and away when artists air their dirty laundry in public

Image of the week

Your art weekly

@rachelguthrie8: "Has Degas become so much of a mainstream mover that all that was innovative about him has been streamlined? #artweekly"

Have you seen any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones.

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September 25 2011

Immaculate conception: Andy Warhol's women

First there was Marilyn, then Liz, then Jackie. In 1974, Andy Warhol started painting Bardot. Jonathan Jones on the pop artist's women

Andy Warhol absorbed tons of what we now call "content" into his art. He was a one-man search engine, instinctively latching on to everything that was trending, yet also going deep, dragging up images others would shy away from: photographs of car crash victims and suicides. Words such as "camp", "kitsch", "tacky" might seem the right ones to describe his boundless pop cultural appetite; but these are underestimations that glance harmlessly off the cold, shadowed, eerie surfaces of his paintings. It is Warhol's pure eye, his ability to show an object or a face – whether through the clean drawn lines of his early work, or the silkscreened found images of his Factory paintings – with a pristine clarity and simplicity that focus the mind.

Another chunk of Warhol content will be unveiled in London next month, when a series of 1974 portraits of Brigitte Bardot go on show at the Gagosian gallery. Meanwhile, a Warhol retrospective has just opened at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, drawn from the Artist Rooms collection, together with important loans such as the Tate Marilyn Diptych. So many things to see, and to register impassively in the way Warhol seemed to register them: cow wallpaper and dollar signs, the electric chair and a French film star. Yet in each case Warhol drains away the irrelevant and the ironic, producing a pure, sincere image.

Warhol's Bardot has a green face and red lips, a blue face and red lips. Her cheeks are perfect, her hair is a tangle of silkscreen shadows, and she manages to be of two times, simultaneously. Warhol made his portrait using a 1959 photograph by Richard Avedon, of Bardot in her youth; the paintings themselves date from 1974, soon after the star of French 1960s cinema announced her retirement. The strong, raw colours, dark shadows and garish lipstick ooze the 70s: these are manifestly paintings from the decadent era of Roman Polanski and Exile on Main Street. So, while the woman in the picture has not aged, has remained frozen in perfect cinematic beauty, the world has got older, saggier, more corrupt. By retiring from the screen, Bardot preserved her young image for posterity: this Bardot will not grow old, even if time moves on. Loss haunts the black shadows of Warhol's paintings.

I recently stood among soup cans in a Los Angeles museum, contemplating the series of small canvases Warhol exhibited at the city's Ferus gallery, his first one-man show as a fine artist in 1962. These paintings are not photo-derived, but drawn neatly and carefully filled in to present, each of them, an outsized soup can in just four colours: red, white, black and gold. (There may be some silver there, too.) The cans are all the same, but each is different. Campbell's soup is exhibited in all its flavours, from tomato to chilli beef. Here, too, it was Warhol's pure, cleansed, innocent eye that struck you – seeing the beauty in the humblest, most ordinary, least distinguished thing. These paintings are like the prayers of a saint.

Warhol was careful to conceal his faith during his lifetime; serving in a Catholic soup kitchen didn't really fit with his public image as master of revels at the Factory and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But you could look at Bardot as his icon of the Virgin Mary. Like the other women he idolised – including Marilyn Monroe, subject of his explicitly religious diptych – Bardot appears here as a remote, superhuman, adored beauty. Women were not Warhol's primary sexual objects, to put it clinically; but they haunt his art, fulfilling mythological and religious roles. Monroe is a martyr; Jackie Kennedy a mater dolorosa weeping for America; and Bardot might just be the queen of heaven herself, unchanging and immaculate as the world rots around her.

Warhol is pure as the driven snow, his art like a visit to church. Too much of that can get on your nerves, but when you need to see the modern world through new eyes, no one is more honest.


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September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December.


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September 12 2011

Los Angeles: art's brave new world

Hats off to the city that launched Andy Warhol, spawned Ed Ruscha and now boasts Frank Gehry's most beautiful building

Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is the light: it's like walking into a David Hockney painting.

But the work of art that makes the most poetic use of the silver and blue optical clarity of Californian sunshine is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. The way the curved sails of shining metal that shape this beautiful building glitter against the sky is a glimpse of paradise in the middle of the city. Gehry is a truly great architect and this public monument is his masterpiece – an even lighter and more dynamic creation than his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Or perhaps it is simply that California is the true home of his art. His concave and convex, hard-yet-yielding forms seem to belong here, to blow in the breeze like the sails of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B.

LA is not a city with a reputation for a developed public life. It's more famous for car culture than for ... culture, and more renowned for strip malls than civic piazzas. Yet Gehry's generous civic building, loved by locals, could give London some lessons in architecture, with a heart and soul that pour life into a city, instead of sucking it out. Yes, I am once again referring to the Shard. Why is London letting an oversize tower wreck its skyline for no good reason, while here in LA an infinitely more imaginative contemporary building performs a creative instead of destructive role in community life?

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a classic of modern architecture, a building that proves the social and cultural value of poetry, personal expression and beauty. Architecture does not have to be a corporate trashing of the common life. It can save the world, in the hands of a genius like Gehry.

Another genius who has been captivating me in LA is Ed Ruscha. Ever since the 1960s, Ruscha has created art with such indefinable cool that categorising it as pop, or conceptualism – or anything except a deeply brilliant triumph of precision and impersonal style – seems clumsy. He is the west coast's Warhol, the Gerhard Richter of the Pacific. I saw a painting by him yesterday called Annie, Poured in Maple Syrup. It was painted in 1966. The bold letters of the name Annie do indeed seem to be written in gooey syrup – yet the infantilist, supersweet lettering is painted with meticulous conviction in oil on canvas. I find this both a hilarious and eerie work. It seems to do everything pop art ever wanted to do, but better.

Well, not better than Warhol. There is a powerful display at Moca of his soup-can paintings, a reconstruction of the exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, LA, in 1962 when these irresistible paintings were first shown to the world. Warhol made a road trip across America to exhibit in LA. It was the city that gave him his first solo show – an exhibit purely of soup cans, painted as icons. The show was supported by film star Dennis Hopper among others. In LA, Warhol must have felt like he was coming home.


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July 01 2011

We don't own modern art – the super-rich do

A record-breaking Sotheby's auction has punctured the boom-time illusion that the art of today is common property

Art is a luxury, the ultimate luxury. Imagine the glory of having an original work of art by a great artist on your wall. It beats the best car, the best helicopter. Art is money and if you want people to know your wealth, you must buy art.

Sorry if this imaginary blurb for the art market seems offensive, but that is kind of the idea. The market in modern art is truly offensive. It is becoming more sickening by the day. This week saw businesses go bust and an entire nation on the edge of the economic abyss. In Britain, famous high street names such as Thorntons and Habitat hit the buffers. In Greece, riot police held back protesters as punitive austerity measures were imposed by parliament.

Meanwhile, a sale of modern art at Sotheby's on Wednesday night made £108.8m, a London record according to the auctioneers. A Bacon went for £8.3m, a Warhol portrait of Deborah Harry for £3.7m. Spectacular sums were also paid for works by German contemporary artists, while a Damien Hirst spot painting topped a million quid, suggesting he is still attractive to the people he needs to be attractive to.

But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today's art collectors are "Russian oligarchs". Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich's yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year's Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor's, or public sector workers.

And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.

In the 1990s, a credit-fuelled sense of affluence made the excesses of the art market seem fine, even entertaining. Besides, contemporary art has a dual nature. On the one hand it is – like all fine art down the ages – a plaything of the rich. But that is not the whole story. It is also a public art. Spectacular installations, accessible videos such as The Clock, and free display spaces like the Tate Turbine Hall, make the art of today a common property, capable of communicating in exciting ways across nations and generations. It has a utopian aspect.

So spare us the conservative attacks on modern art. I do not think the prices paid for Warhol or Bacon reflect on the artists themselves – as it happens, a lot of good art changed hands at the Sotheby's sale. And for all the fuss over the Abramovich yacht, the reality is that people from all walks of life are visiting the Venice Biennale this summer and finding it, as I did, a stimulating overview of the best new art on the planet.

But how long can this go on? How will the growing, grotesque disparity between our belief that we "own" modern art and the glaring reality that it is bought and sold by the super-rich, survive these times? In 2009, Athens was being touted as a rising contemporary art centre, with collectors, fairs, new galleries. Art is fully globalised, and seems to be operating as a separate world system while all around it crashes. I am not prophesying disaster for it. If people go on believing in it, art may even be a clue to the survival and recovery of world capitalism. On a more local level, if British people keep on loving new art even as the rich carry it home, it probably also means the coalition is destined to a decade or so of power and the left is toast. Or if the times here and elsewhere prove harder to stabilise, if the rocks in the road get bigger – well, the art system will probably still go on. But will we be looking?


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May 16 2011

Andy Warhol: a self-portrait of the artist trying his fame on for size

Beneath his superficial focus on cash and celebrity, Andy Warhol was a deeply serious artist – as his $38.4m self-portrait suggests

Andy Warhol is one of the most misunderstood artists of the 20th century. He courted this misunderstanding. A brilliant coiner of instant sayings about fame and money, he gave the impression that all he cared about was ... the fame and the money. If that was true, he must be drinking champagne with Elizabeth Taylor in heaven this week, for a self-portrait that earned him $1,600 in 1963 has just been sold at Christie's, New York for $38.4m.

Or perhaps Warhol would wryly comment that he wished he had asked for more money when he made it. An entire culture of what he called "business art" – art in which making money is a source of pride rather than shame, the current master of which is Damien Hirst – originates with Warhol, so there's no use pretending cash, celebrity and the American dream are not at the heart of his appeal. But they are not the whole story. The whole story includes recognition of Warhol as a deeply serious artist. He was serious about his art, and serious about the purposes of art. In fact, he was one of the most insidiously intelligent artists of the modern period, which is why his influence is so inescapable.

You see his artistic intelligence in the 1963 self-portrait that has just earned so much money. It is beautiful – one of his best works. Its cool blue hues lure the eye amid columns of newsprint and pictures in media reports of the sale. It looks spiritual, somehow – at once a piece of popular culture and something more private. The four photos he has used show him hiding behind dark glasses and trying out different poses that all seem a bit churlish, awkward, evasive. It is a self-portrait by someone who either does not want to look at himself, or does not want to truly show himself to others. And what makes it so powerful is the self-knowing explicitness with which it communicates this diffidence and unease.

The artist who made this is not just interested in gossip and glamour – he is interested in art and richly aware of the history of portraiture. Warhol in 1963 is newly famous, and it looks like he is trying his fame on for size. In doing so he evokes a very traditional aspect of portraiture: the pose. Where painters in the past posed people behind parapets or in armchairs, he poses in front of a camera and does not quite know the right look to project. And he shows us this.

Authoritative yet intimate, a witty comment on the nature of self-portraiture that also – because of that poetic blueness – succeeds in being disarmingly emotional and true, this portrait shows why Andy Warhol will always be famous not just as a great businessman, but also as a great artist.


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May 13 2011

Ira Cohen obituary

Doyen of the Beat generation feted for his psychedelic photos from the underground

Ira Cohen, who has died of renal failure aged 76, participated in the 1960s artistic counterculture as a poet, publisher, film-maker and raconteur. In the middle of the decade, he took up photography seriously. At his loft in Jefferson Street, New York, Cohen built a chamber with walls and ceilings made from sheets of Mylar, a reflective polyester film. Inside this chamber, he took portraits of William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and the steady stream of hipsters who visited the loft.

Rather than photograph his subjects directly, he took pictures of their distorted reflections on the chamber's walls and ceiling. The surrealistic and psychedelic results were described by Hendrix as "like looking through butterfly wings". The photographer and film-maker Gerard Malanga called the Mylar chamber "a kaleidoscope where the reflections being photographed constantly changed". Life magazine, in its final issue of the 1960s, praised how close Cohen's photographs came to "explaining the euphoric distortions of hallucinogenics".

Cohen was born to deaf parents, Lester and Faye, in the Bronx, New York. He learned sign language before he could read and write. He attended Horace Mann school and Cornell University, where he took writing classes from Vladimir Nabokov. At Columbia University, he became involved in the jazz and avant-garde scenes of New York's Lower East Side.

In 1961 he boarded a freighter to Morocco where he spent time with Burroughs and the writers Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles. He embarked on publishing a literary magazine, Gnaoua, centred on the Beat scene in Tangier. In 1964, the only volume of Gnaoua was published, with contributions including a preview of Burroughs's cut-up novel Nova Express, photographs by Jack Smith and Allen Ginsberg's reflections on totalitarianism. A copy of Gnaoua can be seen on the cover of Bob Dylan's album Bringing it All Back Home.

In 1966, having returned to New York, Cohen edited and published – under the nom de plume Panama Rose – The Hashish Cookbook, with recipes ranging from cakes and puddings to soups and drinks. He also produced Jilala, an album of Moroccan trance music.

Cohen was a pioneer of the loft scene in the Lower East Side, where the low rents and vast spaces attracted artists, musicians, actors and writers. Happenings were organised in lofts, and he became part of the burgeoning underground which was successfully commercialised by Andy Warhol. Cohen himself was never able to deal with art or writing in any commercial way. He advocated that artists and poets should have patrons and be supported.

One story typifies Cohen's haphazard luck. Having disturbed a burglar at his loft, he struck up a conversation, explaining the Mylar chamber and his lifestyle. The burglar left but soon returned with a Bolex 16mm film camera and a box of prism lenses, which he sold to Cohen for almost nothing.

In 1968, using the Bolex, Cohen made the film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, a psychedelic romp that features the Mylar chamber and scenes inspired by the work of Julian Beck's Living Theatre company. He also produced a documentary about the Living Theatre's US tour of the play Paradise Now, which involved audience participation and scenes of mass nudity, leading to arrests for indecency.

In 1970 Cohen's Mylar chamber photographs were used on the cover of the album Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus by the psychedelic rock band Spirit and on the jacket of the first novel by Burroughs's son, William Jr, entitled Speed. Cohen then departed to Nepal with the Living Theatre actor Petra Vogt and began a small press, Bardo Matrix, publishing books and broadsheets on handmade rice paper, including works by Bowles, Gregory Corso and Angus MacLise. He also published his own poetry, including the collections Gilded Splinters and Poems from the Cosmic Crypt.

Cohen later directed the film Kings With Straw Mats (1998), a documentary about the Kumbh Mela gathering in India, and released the album The Majoon Traveller, featuring the music of MacLise, Ornette Coleman and Master Musicians of Joujouka, mixed with his readings. In his later years, he was feted by a new generation of the counterculture, as The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda and Paradise Now were released on DVD. In 2006, the Whitney Museum of American Art's biennial featured his photographs of Smith.

I first met Cohen in 1992 when he participated in a Burroughs and Gysin exhibition in Dublin, displaying his Mylar images and other work. He took a central role in the event, hosting daily readings. When it came to publishing, he was enthusiastic and generous. On being asked for a contribution for a book, he was likely to also offer a piece by Bowles or Anne Waldman which had been left over from one of the many publications he had edited. In his personal attire (such as his long kaftan and bead-strewn beard) and his manner, he always embodied a bohemian intent on doing his own thing.

In the mid-1950s he married Arlene Bond, with whom he had two children. He later married Carolina Gosselin, with whom he had a daughter. Both marriages ended in divorce. He also had a son from another relationship. He is survived by his children and his sister, Janice.

• Ira Cohen, photographer, poet, publisher and film-maker, born 3 February 1935; died 25 April 2011


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