Pop Culture On the Wall
FOR THE MOMENT
A few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York did a study to see how long the average museum-goer spends looking at each painting in an exhibition. They came up with an average of 30 seconds per painting, proving that most people spend very little time and effort absorbing what they see on the walls of museums.
Occasionally, however, an exhibition comes along that gets the visitor to think about what they see. Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts mounted a show entitled "Beuys and Warhol: The Artist as Shaman and Star," which did exactly that. This exhibition, which examined the work of American pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and German artist Josef Beuys (1921-1986), should be remembered as one of those rare shows that triggers an intense viewer response.
According an article in Art New England's February/March issue, the Beuys and Warhol show is part of a recent trend to make art exhibitions more than mere retrospectives on an artist's or group of artists' work. As Art New England writer Patricia Hills puts it, "[museum] curators have become more assertive and have elected to mount theme shows in which they can advance their own ideas about art and culture."
Through the example of Warhol and Beuys, curator Trevor Fairbank seeks to demonstrate the close relationship between art and popular culture.
Warhol, whose images of such American cultural staples as soup cans and Marilyn Monroe forms an enormous part of late twentieth century Americana, can be looked at as the ultimate superstar. Meanwhile, Beuys, whose innovative experimentations with assorted media and methods of visual expression, is commonly viewed as a sort of artist-as-sorcerer, or shaman.
But what is perhaps most interesting about these artists is not so much how the public perceived them, but how both Beuys and Warhol insisted that the public recognize them, acknowledge them and, most of all, react to them. This exhibition did a wonderful job in spotlighting how each artist went about doing this, choosing and hanging works thoughtfully.
Although both Beuys and Warhol were members of an international artistic elite, their work drew from and commented on popular culture and ways of thinking. In works such as "Mr. Nobody," a sarcastic portrait of a typical American businessman, Warhol makes us look at ourselves in a new, critical way. By taking a posed portrait photograph of an average, middle-class man, silkscreening it onto a canvas, altering the color scheme and presenting it as avant-garde "high art," Warhol raises questions about why we call certain things art, and how the mainstream of popular culture looks at and effects artistic progress. He raises similar questions about popular attitudes toward money (large $-signs on blank canvases), sensationalism (silk screen paintings of car crashes and electric chairs) and fundamentalist Christianity (a painting that says simply "Repent and Sin No More").
Beuys' art deals with similar issues. Some of the more memorable Beuys pieces in the exhibition were a silk screen that read "Kunst=Kapital," ("Art=Capital"), and a plastic bag that had printed on it a chart showing Beuys' view of an ideal political system. (Beuys made up a limited edition of these bags and distributed them on the street.) Like Warhol, Beuys created directly for "the people," forcing us to think about our society.
One can not overlook the fact, however, that both Beuys and Warhol were incredible self-promoters. Both artists' grandiose self-portraits, as well as their frequent and splashy public appearances, were nothing if not exercises in self-indulgence and egotistical reverence. But no matter how they achieved their influence, their affect on the public was profound. The show emphasized this point.
A mark of this exhibition's innovation was the comment book that was set up at the door. Accompanied by a simple note that read "We invite your comments," this loose-leaf notebook proved to be the true measure of the power of Beuys' and Warhol's art. Some of the remarks scrawled here were adoring and worshipful; some were hateful and dismissive. But no matter what the people who wrote in the book said, they were passionate in saying it. Beuys and Warhol wouldn't have wanted it any other way.