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Silver factory revisited

Warhol’s pleasure-driven aesthetic and penchant for celebrity are explored at the Museum of Fine Arts

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One Elvis, two Elvises, three Elvises – The King greets you at the entrance of the Museé des Beaux-Arts’s new exhibit, “Warhol Live.” And it’s fitting that cultural royalty welcomes you into the exhibition, which feels something like a Warhol art-show-cum-tribute to the man as a cultural icon.

It is by placing Warhol in the context of his cultural contemporaries that an interpretation of his art – and persona – is achieved. The show’s emphasis is not entirely on Warhol’s better-known work, though there is certainly plenty of it. Rather, “Warhol Live” seeks to explain how he did not only immortalize cultural icons, but how he himself came to be considered one.

The “alternative media” that Warhol, in part, created, illustrates how dynamic and extensive his ambition was. What he sought was not something tangible, but rather a sort of greater presence. Photographs are especially important in this respect; their inherent realism places Warhol, sometimes literally, beside other great artists of the time.

The show does not stop at photography, but introduces Warhol’s record covers as an element of his artistic achievement. The most well known may be the The Velvet Underground & Nico’s banana, but the abundance of them – and Warhol was, of course, all about quantity – makes you realize how deeply involved he was with culture. He didn’t only sit in the Factory all day churning out art.

It is impossible to understand Warhol as a pop-culture icon without acknowledging his deep involvement in music. The exhibit’s hall of album covers is a slickly-conceived room featuring a glass hallway that houses Warhol-designed album covers. It comes off like an homage to the glass cases where famous musicians house their gold and platinum records.

Dance, another critically neglected aspect of Warhol’s art, is less obviously present in the exhibit. Rather than present dance in the literal sense, the exhibit often emphasizes movement and frivolity. This is best illustrated by the Silver Pillow Room, which expresses the playful nature of Warhol’s Factory lifestyle. It’s a small room, but the floating pillow-balloons – that yes, you can actually touch – and the mirrors that reflect you to infinity are a playful reminder of Warhol’s pleasure-driven aesthetic.

In a few places, the exhibit loses its cohesion. One of the last rooms, meant to evoke Studio 54, was awkward. I was the only one in an enormous carpeted room with light displays on the walls, and I definitely didn’t feel like dancing. And the Factory room, which aimed to recall Warhol’s workspace, down to the foil-covered walls, was too obviously static; a museum setting entails no element of production. Even though the Factory was undoubtedly a crucial element to Warhol’s art and art-making, its attempted reproduction did not cohere with the rest of the exhibit.

The last room of “Warhol Live” is, simply, a shrine to Warhol. A self-portrait of his head, massive and yellow, beautiful and weird, takes up an entire wall. A hallway leading to Warhol’s image is lined with portraits of artists from Aretha Franklin to Liza Minnelli. They are the court where Warhol is king.

Warhol was, and continues to be, a force in a world that so quickly moves from one trend to the next. What is so stunning is that Warhol’s art seems to be so terribly –and wonderfully – ephemeral. It is too easy to see Warhol as a “pop” artist and only as that. This exhibition does an excellent job at attempting to dispel this narrow understanding of him.

What the exhibit reveals about Warhol – through paintings, videos, photographs, and vinyl covers – is that his art and attitude were focused on enjoyment of the transient. Even though his art captured the moment in which it was created without sacrificing its inherent temporality, Warhol’s presence in contemporary culture is constantly recurring, incessantly renewed.

Warhol Live is on display until January 18 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke O). Admission is $7.50 for students and half price on Wednesdays.