Five days after the opening of its much-anticipated Andy Warhol retrospective, Tate Modern closed its doors indefinitely in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But museumgoers don’t have to wait for Tate to reopen to appreciate the exhibition. On April 6, the London institution released a collection of online resources related to the show. From a seven-minute video tour led by two Tate curators to a lengthy exhibition guide and a podcast titled “The Art of Persona,” art lovers can now fully explore the aptly titled “Andy Warhol” from home.
“Curating an Andy Warhol exhibition in the present-day means confronting a world where everyone has a mental projection of the artist and his production,” curators Gregor Muir and Fiontán Moran tell the Guardian’s Tim Jonze. “Everyone owns Warhol. He is one of those rare artists who transcends the art world, having become widely known as one of America’s most famous artists, if not one of America’s most famous Americans. Over time, Warhol became—and still is—a big brand, which is just how he wanted it.”
The exhibition seeks to look beyond the persona of eccentricity that Warhol built for himself. Immigration forms featured in the show’s first gallery, for instance, document the Pop Art legend’s parents’ arrival in the United States. Andrej and Julia Warhola moved to Pittsburgh from Miková, a village in what is now Slovakia, during the early 1920s; the couple raised their children in the Ruthenian Catholic tradition, introducing an influence that shaped Warhol’s art throughout his career.
As Muir explains in the new video, the exhibition approaches Warhol through the lenses of his immigrant background and queer identity, as well as the themes of death and religion evident in his oeuvre.
“He was an artist who really, despite all of his insecurities, tried to be himself,” says Moran in the video. “And part of that was his gay identity and very often a lot of his works explore same-sex desire. And you see that in a number of the early drawings that he does in the ’50s, which often depict men he knew or men he desired.”
The second gallery in “Andy Warhol” centers on one of the art icon’s early works, a 1963 film comprised of close-up shots of sleeping poet—and, briefly, Warhol’s lover—John Giorno. According to Tate’s exhibition guide, Giorno later said that his lover circumvented the homophobia of the art world “by making the movie Sleep into an abstract painting: the body of a man as a field of light and shadow.”
During the 1960s, Warhol began creating brightly colored artworks with stark black outlines screen-printed on top—a style that came to be known as Pop Art. Today, soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and celebrities painted in multiples of two, four or more are among the artist’s most well-known works.
“Most of these works were produced in the early part of the 1960s at the artist’s first home on Lexington Avenue,” the curators tell the Guardian, “not the Silver Factory, as people imagine.”
Warhol established the factory—his art studio and social hub—in 1963. Covered in silver paint and foil, the site won fame as the place where the artist and his assistants produced a significant number of paintings and films.
“With a lot of Warhol’s work, you don’t know how involved he actually was, because he had his assistants and the whole idea of the Factory was that there was no single hand,” Hirshhorn Museum curator Evelyn C. Hankins told Smithsonian magazine’s Megan Gambino in 2012.
This situation changed in 1968, when writer Valerie Solanas shot Warhol after accusing him of stealing her manuscript. The wound nearly killed the artist, and in doing so, led to the demise of the factory’s open-door policy. Warhol’s mental and physical health suffered for the rest of his life.
“Despite the trauma of the event, he agreed to pose for photographer Richard Avedon and once compared the stitches of his chest to a Yves Saint Laurent dress,” writes Tate in the exhibition guide.
During the ’70s, Warhol began painting portraits commissioned by wealthy clients, in addition to series such as Mao, Hamer and Sickle, and Skull. He also funded Interview magazine, a publication still active today.
One of Warhol’s series from the decade, titled Ladies and Gentlemen, features portraits of African American and Latinx drag queens and transgender women. Little was known about the subjects of the paintings when they were first created, but research highlighted in the exhibition is now revealing their stories.
The last artwork in Tate’s retrospectiv is Sixty Last Suppers, a large-scale work based on a cheap reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. A copy of the mural hung in the kitchen of Warhol’s childhood home.
Sixty Last Suppers was one of the last pieces Warhol created. In 1987, the 58-year-old artist died of cardiac arrest after undergoing gallbladder surgery.
“He could have gotten [the surgery] scheduled and done earlier, had he been more preventative about his health,” Jose Diaz, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum, told History.com’s Sarah Pruitt in 2018. “But until the end, he avoided hospitals. He was always nervous about getting sick. I think death always made him nervous, but of course, having almost died once really escalated that.”