Toronto’s AGO (The Art Gallery of Ontario) Re-opens Its Doors to the Public with Andy Warhol Exhibition

Toronto’s AGO (The Art Gallery of Ontario) Re-opens Its Doors to the Public with Andy Warhol Exhibition

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Toronto‘s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) re-opened its doors to the art-loving public shortly after Ontario moved into Step 3 of its Reopening Plan. Several new exhibitions, a new patio, and the long-awaited Andy Warhol showcase are all-new offerings from the AGO. The exhibit was initially announced in January 2020 but was delayed time and time again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Andy Warhol showcase is a retrospective that covered the Pop Art phenomenon’s life and career over the span of four decades. The Warhol exhibit features more than 250 pieces of Warhol‘s works, including his iconic portraits, photographs, drawings, films, and installations. Tickets for this exhibition are currently on sale at the official AGO website.
On the opening day, there was a long line of visitors waiting to enter the gallery space. Following the short wait and multiple screenings, visitors were greeted by a massive blue and red self-portrait of Andy Warhol. The entire exhibit was presented across an enormous section of the gallery to allow for social distancing. On the threshold of each room was a marker of the maximum number of visitors allowed in that space at one time.

The first half of the exhibit was devoted to Warhol‘s upbringing and formative years in his art career. Born as Andrew Warhola in 1928, he was the third son to Andrej and Julia Warhola, working-class Eastern European immigrants. Growing up in depression-era Pittsburgh, PA, he was raised Ruthenian Catholic (a branch of Catholicism with Eastern Orthodox elements) and frequently attended mass throughout his childhood. A series of black and white old family photos and documents were on display in this space, including one hand-coloured sepia print of him as a young boy. There was also the manifest of alien passengers for the United States immigration office at the port of arrival that Warhol‘s mother received when she landed in Ellis Island in 1921. There was also space dedicated to his earlier paintings and drawings from his time at Pittsburgh‘s Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Moving into the next room, there was a giant instructional diagram of the foxtrot that many visitors walked past, nearly tripped over, or stopped momentarily to read. It was in this room that housed Warhol‘s commercial and advertising artwork. In the late 1950s, Warhol moved to New York to pursue his commercial illustration and advertising art career. This came when America was experiencing a post-World War II consumerism boom, where Americans were surrounded by advertisements at every turn via mass media. He was a successful commercial artist, yet none of his ink-washed illustrations of shoes and gloves were on display. Later in his career, his artwork would be influenced by his professional background in advertising and commentary on mass production for public consumption.

In the 1960s, he started making paintings based on images from advertisements after being inspired by works he saw in New York galleries. Around this time, he adopted the silkscreen technique and added his own flair to it with hand printing backgrounds and photographic silkscreen images. One of his earlier silkscreen paintings on display was Before and After (1961). This was based on an ad for cosmetic surgery. It featured a black-and-white diptych of a woman who had some noticeable work done on the bridge of her nose. The painting also gave visitors insight into his extreme self-consciousness about his physical appearance that would follow him throughout his life. Warhol himself underwent cosmetic surgery to remove the ball at the end of his nose. He also experimented with girdles and makeup, sported some rather unfortunate-looking wigs, and wore glasses in addition to contact lenses. His ratty wigs were also on display.

Across the gallery, the floor was the iconic Marilyn Diptych. Warhol produced this painting in 1962, four months after Marilyn Monroe‘s death. The Marilyn Diptych was made up of two canvases painted silver. A publicity photo from her film, Niagara, was then silkscreened fifty times. The diptych form depicted Monroe as an icon and deity, much like the angels and saints usually featured in diptychs displayed on top of altars in Catholic churches. The publicity still used in the painting captured Monroe at the peak of her fame. The images on the left side were bold and colourful with splashes of pink, white, blue, black, and orange. The images on the right side were all black and white, with one column of smudged images fully covering Marilyn‘s face. This could be a deliberate choice on Warhol’s part to show the likelihood of her fame fading into obscurity after her death, like many other celebrities who have passed away and were quickly forgotten. It could also be a warning about the darker side of fame. His other diptychs and portraits of Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor displayed his love for celebrities and infatuation with movie stars.

The exhibition also included Warhol‘s installation piece, Silver Clouds (1966), and Cow Wallpaper (1966). Silver Clouds consisted of a small room with whitewashed walls filled with Scotchpak bags. These bags were filled with a mixture of air and helium, allowing them to hover and float around in a mesmerizing and playful fashion. To the left of Silver Clouds was the Cow Wallpaper. This was part of a lesser-known series he created in collaboration with art dealer Ivan Karp and printmaker Gerard Malanga. The fabulously kitschy wallpaper on display featured a repeated image of a hot pink cow’s head screen printed on a bright yellow background.

Also on display were the experimental films Warhol made in his career. Warhol actually made hundreds of movies during his career, and the AGO displayed two of them. One of the films was, Sleep (1963), a black and white film where Warhol filmed his occasional lover, poet John Giordano, sleeping in for over 320 minutes. The second was Screen Tests (1964-1966). This was his most extended film project where his subjects were asked to sit still and not blink while a camera was up in their faces. Since The Factory (Warhol‘s studio) had an open door policy at the time, literally everyone who walked through the studio‘s door starred in their own individual screen tests. Various artists and celebrities, including Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, and Edie Sedgwick, were included in this project.
Then the exhibition proceeded into a section dedicated to a traumatizing part of Warhol‘s life. In 1968, Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, a playwright who was convinced that Warhol tried to steal her work, so she bought a gun and shot him three times (missed twice and the third shot wounded him). There was a photograph of Warhol‘s elderly mother leaving the hospital in the back of a taxi as she was held in the arms of actress Viva. The look of distress, sorrow and deep pain on his mother‘s face was haunting.

The shooting prompted him to rightfully close down The Factory and set up the Business Art Project, where he produced the Mao wallpaper and produced larger screenprint pieces based on his previous work. One such work is the series of eight vibrantly screen prints of Marilyn Monroe. Warhol‘s obsession with death understandably heightened during this time as well. Around this time, he produced Ladies and Gentlemen, a portrait series of Black and Latinx drag queens and transwomen.

On top of silkscreen printing, filmmaking, and painting, Warhol‘s portfolio also included managing an influential avant-garde rock band. The Velvet Underground & Nico record cover with the fluorescent yellow banana was exhibited on the wall, as well as other album artwork by famous singers such as Aretha Franklin and Liza Minnelli. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) in the adjacent room was a multimedia show that combined the music of The Velvet Underground and Nico, film projections of Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov (two of the Warhol Factory Superstars) dancing with whips, and strobe lights that hit every corner of the room.

Nearing the end of the exhibition was all of Warhol‘s work in his final years, the 1970s1980s. This section featured more portraits of celebrities, such as Debbie Harry, Wayne Gretzky, and Karen Kain. One of the Karen Kain portraits included diamond dust to accentuate her star power. A series of stitched photographs used his signature motifs of repetition and grids and featured supermodel/singer/actress Grace Jones. The exhibition also dug up a segment from Warhol‘s appearance on Saturday Night Live. It aired an episode of Andy Warhol‘s Fifteen Minutes, his TV show on MTV that featured celebrity interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the New York underground nightclub scene.

The most influential work in this space was Gun (1981), an acrylic diptych and silkscreen on two ceiling to floor canvases. Death has always haunted Warhol. From his father‘s premature death to Marilyn Monroe‘s untimely suicide and especially his own near brush with death, his fear of death became a reoccurring theme throughout his career. The oversized Gun used in this painting was similar to the pistol Solanas used to shoot Warhol. Unfortunately, complications related to the shooting contributed to Warhol‘s death in 1987.

The Andy Warhol exhibition at The AGO was a deep and comprehensive retrospective of the man and his extensive career. The show traced not only his career but mirrored the societal changes of the times. Some art snobs criticized him as vacuous and superficial while referring to his artwork as nothing more than a silly soup can. This exhibition showed that he saw the beauty and profundity in the everyday and underground. He redefined what art can mean, who can make it, and made it accessible.
The Andy Warhol Exhibition will be on display at The AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) until October 24, 2021.

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