For His 80th, Warhol Granted More Than His 15 Minutes

Andy Warhol infamously said, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” By now Warhol has contradicted his own statement: his celebrity—and more importantly his artistic influence—has lasted for over 50 years.

To commemorate what would have been his 80th year, and to help dismantle common simplifications of Warhol’s work, Harvard art professor Benjamin Buchloh has organized the conference “Andy, 80? Considering the Warhol Legacies on His 80th Birthday” to take place today and tomorrow in the Sackler Auditorium. The conference will present three speakers from in and outside Harvard who will present papers on Andy Warhol in the realms of fashion and the culture industry, sexuality and queer culture, and film and photography.

“Warhol is a well known figure about whom people know nothing other than what is superficially known and what is known from the media,” Buchloh says. “It might be a misgeneralization on my side, but from the conversations that I’ve had in a variety of contexts, the comprehension of Warhol is not very well established.”

The conference will attempt to dispel the notion of Andy Warhol as simply a celebrity in the realm of designers or a branded figure like a corporation. “I would like students to gain an interest and understanding that artistic practices are actually different from production practices in the area of contemporary fashion and consumption,” Buchloh says.

As much as it is an act of appreciation of Warhol’s work, the conference will also delve into the complex questions surrounding the art.

“Warhol’s work is beyond all the traditional boundaries,” Buchloh says. “You can never tell whether his work is affirmative or subversive or critical, whether it is playing with the code of fashion and consumer culture or whether it is undermining them or intensifying them.”

The current global influence of Warhol is one of the most innovative approaches to his work that will be discussed this weekend. “The spectrum of Warhol’s production is broader than any other artist of that whole period and that in and of itself is quite an accomplishment,” Buchloh says. “It makes him an absolutely central figure for both artists working in the world now in global contexts. The internationalism that Warhol has brought about is stunning.”

In addition to the variety of topics being discussed, the diversity of the academics’ approaches contributes to the conference’s appeal. “There have been several generations of scholarship on Warhol which will be represented on the panel. You have very eminent scholars and you have mid-career scholars and graduate students, so it will be almost three generations of conversation,” says Helen Molesworth, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Fogg, who will be a respondent at the conference.

Although the event is drawing a wide range of scholars to Harvard for the weekend, Buchloh insists that undergraduates are the group that he is trying to target. “I was hoping that it would not just be a scholarly affair,” he says.

Warhol’s role is particularly relevant to today’s youth, according to Molesworth. “I think the current generation of undergraduates exists in a world with more images than any other group of people ever on the history of the planet,” she says. “If Warhol is the artist who has the most to tell us about all those different kinds of images and how they work together than I would think that an examination of Warhol would be really interesting to undergraduates.”

The hope is that an increased understanding of Warhol will lead to a greater understanding of the larger complexities of contemporary art and culture. Citing his own topic of interest—Warhol, film, and sexual politics–keynote lecturer Douglas Crimp of the University of Rochester emphasizes this point as well. “Anyone interested in culture and in American culture in the second half of the 20th century and into the present would be interested because Warhol continues to have an enormous influence on contemporary art production and on thinking about the relation of art and culture,” he says.

In this vein, Buchloh hopes that undergraduates will walk away from the conference with a fuller understanding of the lasting complexities of Warhol’s work. The event will emphasize that Warhol is not a brand-name like Coca-Cola or Disney but rather an artist whose influence has yet to diminish.

—Staff writer Kerry A. Goodenow can be reached at goodenow@fas.harvard.edu.