Andy Warhol, bad or good? This is the dilemma facing the poor old Tate Modern in its current blockbuster, "Pop Life: Art in a Material World." It’s a show that restages Keith Haring’s "Pop Shop," his SoHo store that opened in 1986 and lasted till 2005; Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas’ Bethnal Green "Shop," which did business during the early 1990s; Jeff Koons’ notorious and rarely reunited "Made in Heaven" series of photos of himself and his then-porn-star wife in marital congress; and Richard Prince’s provocative "Spiritual America" (1986), his appropriated image of a ten-year-old Brooke Shields from the Hollywood movie Pretty Baby (which proved its continuing vitality by being promptly removed from the show by local authorities).
"Pop Life," then, examines the brassy legacy that Warhol offered up to his epigones: Let the concept of showbiz and making money sit easily on your shoulders; Do editions; Embrace yourself as a brand; Make yourself look slightly silly but never whimsical; Branch out into TV and even a spot of party-reportage.
The show is very much a crowd-pleaser, nowadays a specialty of this behemoth of an institution. It even has its own massive shop, selling a velour reproduction of Murakami’s Flower Ball for £3,000, along with postcards and books and T-shirts which were a fair bit cheaper. (I don’t recall a Tate show that had its own shop built especially for it before.)
It’s lively and bright and involved and looks good thronged with people, milling about in front of the work. At the evening party, superdealer Jeffrey Deitch agreed with me. "I’ve flown in especially for tonight," he said. "The best thing for me is that I was there when all this happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Also the ‘90s. The reason you think it looks better tonight is because art always looks better with people in front of it."
"Pop Life"’s first room reminds us, just in case we’d forgotten, that Andy Warhol created a lasting impression. His red fright wig Self Portrait from 1986 is hung low down so his eyes are at our eye level, and looks across to Takashi Murakami’s leaping, manic Hiropon, that life-sized statue of a mighty-breasted Manga-esque and manic schoolgirl whose breasts sprout a world of what could be whipped cream.
The ever-so slightly sinister looking Andy also looks askance at Jeff Koons’ menacing but silly silver Rabbit (1986). Flanking those three iconic works are, on one side, a Macy’s Day Parade video from 2007 featuring the enormous floating balloon version of the rabbit, and a TDK cassette-tape advert (1983) from Japan, including a wide-eyed, bonkers Andy holding a portable TV showing the multi-striped screen test that once signaled the end of our evening’s television viewing, and bedtime.
Accompanying the exhibition, the Tate revealed on Sept. 29, is the aforesaid mammoth balloon version of Koons’ Rabbit, on display in Covent Garden during Oct. 8-11, 2009. Could they actually have chosen a more insipid touristy hell-hole for it to be shown if they’d tried? Actually, that’s probably the point.
Onwards through a darkened room of Warhol’s "Gems" silkscreens, their phosphorescent paint and diamond dust hammering home the point that this show is about the dastardly world of commercialism, and the equal measures of beauty and sickness inherent in it. The wall text here says these works represent a time when, in the eyes of many, Andy was "deeply compromised." Which is, in itself, a gem of a phrase.
The next gallery, dubbed "Worst of Warhol," shows his commissioned portraits of Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, David Hockney, et al, against a chocolate-brown wall, à la his Whitney Museum show in 1979. His 1978 "Self-Portrait Wallpaper" covers the rest of the walls of that room. That wallpaper is bland and sickening actually; perhaps his soul was indeed becoming like putty by that stage.
My favorite room -- the next one -- has all of the early Interview magazine covers gleaming down at the audience, alongside film posters, New York Post front pages reporting Warhol’s death, photographs of him out and about kissing or being kissed by punk-, rock- and film-stars, vitrines of ephemera from his life, and four video screens showing things like his Saturday Night Live performances and his appearance on The Love Boat in1985. Lovely to get a chance to watch and listen to the madness of Pittsburgh’s son, while cocooned in the privacy of a pair of spongy headphones.
At this point in the exhibition, you can go either way, and always end up back where you started. The left exit from the Warhol part of the show takes you to a Basquiat, some Ashley Bickertons, some Elaine Sturtevants, and David Robbins wonderful Talent photos from 1986: 18 black-and-white studio head shots of young artists du jour, pretty much a postmodernist "Picture Theory" crowd.
On then to the Haring "Pop Shop" and its rap music. What sold best on the night of the private view? "The red t-shirts with the white dog on front just flew off the shelves," said a young Tate employee who’d been forced (probably) to sit wearing a fluorescent cap set at an jaunty ’80s angle.
The right exit led to the golden-walled recreation of "Fear of a Black Planet," a 1990 series of high-key images of race and Blaxploitation in pop culture by the duo Pruitt Early (an "homage" by two white artists that met with a decidedly mixed reception when it debuted at Castelli Gallery in New York). Rob Pruitt, standing in the golden-tone recreation, told me he felt "so privileged to be an artist and have all this restaged. It brings back memories. I hadn’t really thought about all this for 14 years so it’s very strange. It brings back not necessarily bad memories. Just memories."
Another re-staging was Damien Hirst’s Ingo, Torsten from 1992, when he positioned a pair of identical twins to sit underneath two squares of spots painted directly on to the wall, a piece originally performed in Cologne’s UnFair fair. Over the time I was at the Tate (morning press view, evening party), I saw three sets of twins. At one point, I saw the first set leave their spot and ask a bewildered security guard where the bathrooms were. They asked the question in unison of course. A number of glittering Hirst works from the fall 2008 Sotheby’s auction "Beautiful Inside My Head For Ever" are also on view. The calf, the diamonds. . . they all somehow blur into one gilded shelving unit or unicorn’s horn in my brain.
Piotr Uklanski got his own room featuring a wall of The Nazis (1998), his breakout work featuring several score photos of actors playing Nazis in film or TV. That certainly stopped party-goers in their tracks. Jeff Koons is also furnished with his own magnificent and naughty room. It includes Dirty -- Jeff on Top (1991), the hulking great sculpture of him lusting away on top of his Hungarian porn star ex-wife La Cicciolina. This is so much better and, erm, dirtier in the flesh than I expected it to be. La Cicc’s winking derriere, Ilona’s Asshole (1991) also gets an outing. What fun watching everyone avoid lingering on that one for too long, especially when the film crews were in the room. We are more easily embarrassed over here. (I think).
The late Martin Kippenberger is honored with a recreation of the Paris Bar in Berlin, the restaurant-cum-lair he opened and covered in his lazy, scrawly art. I was glad to see that they’d included a poster of a painting by Cheri Samba, the artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Paris est Propre (Paris Is Clean), undated. I used to have a postcard of that on my bedroom wall when I was growing up. It has absolutely no link to Warhol but I suppose Kippenberger must have collected it and stuck it on the wall of his bar.
Even the more recent (2003) hour-long film by Andrea Fraser, of her having sex in a hotel room with the collector that paid her £20,000 for the privilege, warranted its own gallery. It hasn’t been seen before in the UK, I think.
"Pop Life" boasts a few new works, including Maurizio Cattelan’s never-before-seen Untitled (2009), a brown horse lying down spiked with a placard saying "Inri," which could be taken the wrong way, I would think. No doubt that's the idea.
At the opening, Takashi Murakami, wearing a skirt, was clearly enjoying himself in his own gallery, the last in the show, flanked as he was by fawning courtiers and Japanese girls eager to take his picture. His glossy, sparkly collaborations -- sneakers and sculptures -- with Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and the house of Louis Vuitton were overshadowed by a new commission titled Giant Magical Princess! She’s Walking Down the Streets of Akihabara! (2009), an almighty mural of a giant blue-haired woman walking through Akihabara, the centre of Manga production in Tokyo.
Nearby plays a video of Kirsten Dunst playing the Manga princess, singing a version of the Vapors 1980 hit Turning Japanese while dancing about flirtatiously in a pair of enviably beautiful blue-and-white checked stockings. There were pamphlets to take home too, one relating a conversation between Murakami and McG, the director of the video, and one about a "School Festival Executive Committee." The pamphlets hold the key to Murakami’s true appeal. They are just so, well, so flat.
I watched, mouth slightly agape, as an irate Murakami assistant from Japan told off a Tate employee for not protecting one of the paintings, a round "superflat" called White Out in Outer Space (1990). Two minutes later, the painting had two Tate employees stationed either side who stayed there for the rest of the night. The division of labor almost made me weep.
Back out in the party proper, a DJ called Charlie Porter was playing Jelly Bean, early Madonna and Lisa Lisa Cult Jam while people sucked on chocolate lollipops -- yes, really, chocolate lollipops -- served by waiters with Bowie-esque glitter-streaks on their cheeks. (Again, poor souls, forced to ’80s themselves up, it was clear.) The crowd included Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, art-world photographer Dafydd Jones, writer Sarah Thornton, Tate boss Sir Nic Serota, wayward septuagenarian journalist Anthony Haden-Guest, artist duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Antony Gormley. I also spotted another bloody Town Crier, or was he a Mayor? I keep bumping into men in ceremonial gold chains at art parties [see "London Dispatch," Aug. 29, 2009]. Maybe they’re following me.
I managed to get hold of Murakami for a while, but could only think of asking him one rather uninteresting question. Why did he choose Kirsten Dunst for the video? "Well, she is a heroine in Japan. Everybody, they love the Spiderman film," he said. "Most of all though, Kirsten Dunst is a great dancer."
I’d been begrudgingly invited to a party for Murakami afterwards. "It’s at Adriana Abascal’s house in W8. She’s a big collector, married to some high flying Mexican," I was told by an art-world insider. But I couldn’t go. My heart, by that late stage, was just too heavy to be dragged to a stranger’s house in west London. The official party was at the nightclub Tramp (aptly stuck in a real ‘80s time-warp), on Jermyn Street off Piccadilly. "Cash bar until 3 am. Mixed groups only. First come first served," barked (again, aptly) the little card that everyone was given at the end of the night.
I trundled home instead, with a pocketful of "Pop Life" candy (handed out at the exit), over the Millennium Bridge, and fell into bed, fluorescent dollar signs flashing in front of my eyes.
"Pop Life: Art in a Material World," Oct. 1, 2009-Jan. 17, 2010, at Tate Modern, Bankside London SE1 9TG
LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and artforum.com.