Institute for Cultural Practices
Artist Rooms: Andy Warhol
A Conversational Exhibition Review
DC: We had the opportunity to attend the preview of The Whitworth’s Artist Rooms: Andy Warhol exhibition last month…
JF: Such an interesting evening, wasn’t it? …and throughout we had several discussions, when we could find one another in the crowd, sort of focusing on emotional response, audience reaction, and exhibition design…
DC: Starting us off, if you had to describe the mood of the exhibition preview in one word, what would it be, and why?
JF: Merriment, that’s the immediate word that surfaces. I think the idea of revelry embodies the mood of the evening. Prior we were discussing the opening talk given by Maria Balshaw, Director of The Whitworth, and Manchester City Galleries, speaking of her desire to create a soiree sort of environment with the exhibition preview. In that way it embodied the spirit of Warhol’s famed New York studio The Factory and it’s notorious parties, The Whitworth very much succeeded in that aspect. The lightness of atmosphere made a very interesting juxtaposition with the darker concepts surrounding the actual art pieces.
JF: Playing off the topic of emotions, how did you personally react to the exhibition, comparatively to what you were expecting prior to the preview?
DC: Unexpectedly, I felt very aware that I was face-to-face with Warhol’s artwork, which I did not think would happen prior to viewing the exhibition. I knew I wanted to go to the preview because, it’s Warhol! However, it was a surreal experience because I was not at the Tate or MoMA. I was at The Whitworth, just a stone’s throw away from my flat, and there was a pleasure in knowing that Warhol’s artwork became easily accessible.
JF: There’s always this feeling of the ‘bizarre’ when being so close physically to such iconic work, isn’t there? Seeing it in person versus in textbooks or online… what aspects of the exhibition space would you say contributed to your reaction?
DC: I believe the layout of the artwork played a major role in how I felt about the exhibition. I am always looking at whether or not there is a starting point or do I get to roam about, text panels to inform my looking, the grouping of artworks based on a theme or series, among a variety of things.
JF: Which specific Warhol piece resonated with you the most?
DC: I would like to say the large self-portrait of Warhol that the viewer is confronted with upon entering the exhibition space would be a sure choice to provoke a strong response, but it did not for me. The piece titled, Self-Portrait Strangulation (1978) did.
My first observation about the piece was that the hands around Warhol’s neck look like those of an ethnically black male. Regardless of the various colour applications, the stark distinction between light and dark tones that often occurs when an image is altered, or a photograph is taken with a lot of exposure, spoke to me. I wondered if it was intentional, and was I the only person reading or seeing race in the piece?
I have had the experience of manipulating photos before for screen printing, and you can engage in so much layering of meaning in the process. So, I found a connection to Warhol through Self-Portrait Strangulation (1978), because I could relate to the technique he used.
DC: Speaking of reactions to artwork, how do you usually look at an exhibition like Artist Rooms, at an opening or a preview?
JF: I always, always, absorb the displayed pieces first, before letting myself be informed or persuaded by the lure of an exhibition’s text, text being the curator’s contextual ‘framing’ of the work displayed. From a personal standpoint, I want to view the work first and foremost for pure aesthetic reaction, formulate my own
thoughts, then compare those reactions to any exhibition text or ‘curatorial voice’ present. It’s along the same lines of wanting to ‘read the book’ before ‘watching the film’, I want to imagine for myself, as opposed to the imagining being done for me.
JF: I’ll shoot that sort of question back at you in a way, what did you observe about the audience during the exhibition throughout the viewing?
DC: Well, there were thoughtful stares at the artwork, intense reading of labels and text panels, heated discussions, and lots of photographing of, with or even without the artwork! I can recall overhearing a young man telling his female companion that he liked Warhol because he thought his work was easy to understand.
It fascinates me how people view artwork and the processes involved in their looking, especially at an opening or a preview, where the crowd can be quite large. And there were a lot of people at Artist Rooms for the preview!
JF: Oh yes, the number of Warhol ‘selfies’ being taken during the preview was impressive, #socialmedia…
DC: It could imagine there may have been tweets on Twitter like “Posing with #AndyWarhol @ARTISTROOMS, @WhitworthArt, #PopArt, #Manchester, #Party!”
But, let me not get sidetracked…
DC: How did you feel being in a packed exhibition space much like the night of the preview of Artist Rooms? And did it impact upon your viewing of the exhibition?
JF: It’s interesting, I always find myself distracted from my own reactions to the works by the sheer volume of people filling the space and their respective reactions. I find my attention wandering to ‘people watching’ antics, observing others observing the art or objects. In many ways, I absolutely love seeing different reactions to pieces, eavesdropping on heated discussions, body language, it’s fascinating…
JF: Do you think that there were any barriers, physical, or otherwise, excluding certain demographics of the public from the Warhol exhibition?
DC: In my opinion, there could have been a perceptive barrier, where a member of the public may feel unsure as to whether they can have a meaningful engagement with the Warhol exhibition. It reminded me of our AGMS seminar discussions on ‘threshold fear’, and the idea “that there are both physical and programmatic barriers that make it difficult for the uninitiated to experience the museum” or in this case, an art exhibition (Gurian, 2005).
However, as an international student studying at the University of Manchester a little over three months now, I’ve visited The Whitworth quite a few times. From guided tours, to exhibition previews, random pop-ins while walking back to my flat after classes, and I even attended a conference that was hosted there. I got this sense that The Whitworth had something for everyone, and the Warhol exhibition met a need, reached a specific audience. The exhibition surely reached me in a way I least expected, and I’m from the Caribbean!
DC: Continuing the thought of inclusion versus exclusion, what and whose voices did you hear in the exhibition through its layout and labels?
JF: It’s interesting, I think from the get go, walking into the space you’re confronted with the exhibition’s, the curatorial voice’s desire to speak of Warhol and his work from a deeper, darker…emotional angle, to show an unexplored side of the artist. I mentioned prior, I went in making a conscious choice to view the art pieces first, absorb the visceral, then circle back to read the exhibition texts.
..and even prior to reading the curator’s introductory panel relating Warhol’s brush with death, being shot by Valerie Solanas and revived, I felt as though the artist, Warhol’s voice was very much present. His turmoil of thoughts confronting death and politics, plastered on the walls, they spoke for themselves…very removed from his earlier, lighter works, the iconic ‘soup cans’, ‘Elvis’ and ‘Marilyns.’
DC: Here’s the question of the hour, prior to starting the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester, to now, do you feel that you were looking at the Warhol exhibition differently?
JF: Oh yes, it’s assess, assess, assess, walking into a museum space, any museum space, is now an exercise in critical thinking (we were warned!). Which is both excellent, we’re no longer taking exhibitions at face value, becoming the shepherds instead of sheep of our thoughts? Also, occasionally frustrating, there’s no longer a blind enjoyment of an exhibition, but hey, ignorance is never really bliss, is it?
DC: Would you return to The Whitworth and view the Warhol exhibition another time?
JF: Oh definitely, I think along the lines of what we just talked about… being able to view the works separate from the distraction of mass quantities of people is necessary. For the sake of being able to hear one’s own thoughts at the very least…
JF: Successful exhibition?
DC: I would say it was a successful exhibition. The buzz prior to the exhibition was real, and it was completely exemplified the night of the preview by sheer number of attendees!
JF: Agreed, in the words of Warhol himself… ‘one’s company, two’s a crowd, and three’s a party.’
Artist Rooms: Andy Warhol is a UK touring exhibition and on view at The Whitworth in Manchester, United Kingdom, 19th November 2016 – 16th April 2017.
The exhibition is supported by National Galleries of Scotland , TATE , Arts Council England , Art Fund , Creative Scotland and Ferens Art Gallery .
Good Reads, 2016. Andy Warhol Quotes. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/139863-but-i-always-say-one-s-company-two-s-a-crowd-and [accessed on 03/12/16].
Gurian, Elaine. 2005. ‘Threshold Fear’ in MacLeod, Suzanne, Reshaping Museum Space, London: Routledge. pp. 203-214.
Warhol, Andy, 1986. Self-Portrait. [Image] © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016. Photo © Tate, London 2016. Available at: http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/exhibitions/currentexhibitions/artistrooms/ [accessed on 6/12/16].
Institute for Cultural Practices