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Andy Warhol’s Influence on Art Today

Two decades after his death, Warhol is still the art world’s leading man. Meet those who call him Pop.

When he was alive, it seemed like Andy Warhol was everywhere, but dying has done nothing to diminish his popularity. In fact it could be argued that Warhol’s death, as Gore Vidal said of Truman Capote’s passing, was “a good career move.” It probably helped him get the solo show he had desperately wanted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989, and it’s been one exhibition after another ever since.

These days Warhol is a movement bordering on a religion, and his almighty influence is on full view in London this fall at the Tate Modern’s big exhibition “Pop Life: Art in a Material World.” The show’s basic tenet is that “Warhol’s most radical lesson is reflected in the work of artists of subsequent generations who have infiltrated the publicity machine and the marketplace as a deliberate strategy.” It tells a story of how Keith Haring, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and other artists who achieved art stardom in the eighties and nineties did so by co-opting Warhol’s tactics. These included referencing consumer products, practicing corporate-style branding and self-promotion, even engaging in factory-like production—often in the unabashed pursuit of wealth or, at least, celebrity. The artists presented in “Pop Life” were certainly chosen for their embrace of commerce as well as for their roles in the speculation-driven, recently deflated art market. But they aren’t necessarily fighting the same battles Warhol fought, and following Andy’s way is, at this point, perhaps just using common sense.

The arguments put forth by the exhibition’s curators, Catherine Wood, Jack Bankowsky, and Alison Gingeras, don’t exactly qualify as epiphanic thunderbolts. That Warhol created the model for so many of today’s art practices should be obvious to anyone conversant in art of the last 30 years. In his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Warhol made the first of his notorious statements about business and art. He wrote: “During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say ‘Money is bad,’ and ‘Working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Though this was a provocative thing to say at the time, provocation had been Warhol’s modus operandi since the sixties, when his studio became known as the Factory. Warhol, who had started his career as a commercial artist, intuitively grasped that the lone artist in his garret was a creature of simpler times. A corporate world called for a corporate artist.

Before Warhol, lots of artists had assistants who stretched and primed canvases, ran errands, or even participated in making the work. But at the Factory, the crew grew to the size of a small business. It was seen as a sort of entourage, but Warhol turned that idea on its head: “People thought it was me that everyone at the Factory was hanging around…but that’s absolutely backward. It was me who was hanging around everyone else. I just paid the rent.”

Though the idea of the Factory captured the public’s imagination, Warhol later downplayed the term. For him it was the office, an art company where he and “the kids” worked. The Factory allowed Warhol to make paintings and films, publish Interview magazine (where I served as editor and wrote a column for many years), put out a novel and a book of philosophy, stage a play, design album covers, make TV commercials and music videos, work as a fashion model, and act on The Love Boat. Not to mention such press-generating projects as the Rent-A-Superstar service or the Andymat, a restaurant for solitary customers, or the Coke-bottled fragrance You’re In.

The last project was recently echoed by Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli’s fake perfume, Greed, a decidedly Warholian invention (that also references Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymade Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette) complete with a Roman Polanski–directed commercial starring Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams and a bottle featuring a portrait of the artist in drag. Vezzoli isn’t included in “Pop Life,” but he is certainly among the breed of artist that this exhibition claims Warhol gave rise to—a type for whom conflating culture and commerce is about “engaging with modern life on its own terms,” as the curators put it. I would argue that for artists of Vezzoli’s generation or of mine, like Richard Prince, their practice is not a matter of following Warhol’s rebellion against modernism but simply doing what comes naturally. To overstate the self-consciousness of these artists is like saying that TV babies rebelled against radio.

The most conspicuous representatives of this new group include Prince, Koons, Hirst, and Murakami, who also happen to be the big money winners of the moment and top stars in the Gagosian Gallery pantheon. And they have lots of what Warhol wanted most: wealth and fame.

One of Andy’s most endearing qualities was his jealousy of anyone who had something he didn’t, and the current generation would give him real grounds for turning green. Murakami, Koons, and Hirst all have more employees than Warhol ever did. Hirst has had restaurants, he’s got the Other Criteria shops, and he threatened to start a revolution by cutting out his dealers and selling $200 million of his art directly through Sotheby’s. Andy must have been spinning in the big Leo Castelli Gallery in the sky.

Murakami, I think, would have especially driven him nuts because of the tremendous high-low range of his product—Louis Vuitton handbags, costume jewelry, toy figurines, art fairs. He even got away with putting a luxury boutique inside the sacrosanct confines of a museum as part of his traveling retrospective “© Murakami.” When I saw that exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007, I couldn’t help but think how envious Andy would have been if he’d lived to see this.

But Warhol didn’t invent the stances he’s famous for. Salvador Dalí, who was 24 years older, was a master of publicity who dared to utilize his art world status to cash in, making TV commercials, doing store windows, and selling signed blank paper. Warhol just took it to the next level, updating strategies practiced not only by Dalí but also Duchamp. That legacy continues with Koons, Hirst, Murakami, and numerous artists around the world, like the young Indian duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, whose paintings and store-like displays riff on fashion, advertising, and globalization.

The curators of “Pop Life” seem eager to find subversion in artists’ “complicity” with the market, insisting that their work hasn’t acquiesced to the world of commerce so much as penetrated and disturbed it. Such arguments exhibit a nostalgia for an ivory tower, a removed position that never really existed. What’s interesting is how the artists in “Pop Life” transcend the diagnostic exegeses. Sure, they play with conventions in art and commerce, but most of them are at least a step ahead of the postmortems. These artists are Teflon. Like Warhol, they have achieved escape velocity and can’t be contained by the gravitational pull of art history and interpretation. For them, the sky’s the limit.

“Pop Life: Art in a Material World” remains on view at the Tate Modern through January 17, 2010, before traveling to the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany, February 6–May 9, and then to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, June 11–September 19.