One gets the uncanny feeling when walking around M Woods’ new show Andy Warhol: Contact that it is surrounded by ghosts. Speaking for myself, I was most haunted by the silver visages of some personal heroes. I remember where I was when I learned of Susan Sontag’s death, and Lou Reed’s. Both are present in short, silent black-and-white film loops culled from Warhol’s famous Screen Tests series, Sontag demurely meeting the camera’s gaze, Reed affecting vintage hipster cool with his opaque shades and glass-bottle Coke.
I flinched at a Polaroid of a busted-up Robert Rauschenberg, whose own magnum opus and bid for immortality through art, The Quarter Mile, recently hung heavy around the corner at the UCCA. Watching visitors punch around helium balloons in Contact’s centrepiece installation, Silver Clouds, I couldn’t help but think about Billy Name, Warhol’s longtime righthand man and the person who seeded the artist’s obsession with the colour silver. Name passed away in July.
Naturally, the most ubiquitous spectre hanging around Contact is Warhol himself. The exhibit’s opening date, August 6, would have been the artist’s 88th birthday. The timing was an auspicious coincidence, says Contact curator and M Woods director Presca Ahn. 'Honestly, I picked that date randomly by counting out the days after our last show’s deinstall and before the international art world collectively goes on vacation,' she muses. One imagines that Warhol, ever an augur of cultural synchronicity, would approve of the timing. One almost believes that he planned it.
This isn’t the first time Warhol’s come to China. That would have been in 1982, when he briefly visited Beijing after attending a club opening in Hong Kong. He was joined at the time by young acolyte Christopher Makos, a photographer who fell into Warhol’s Factory scene after being introduced to the artist by writer Doston Rader at a Whitney Museum retrospective. Makos, who’s subsequently exhibited in Shanghai and made a brief return visit to Beijing for the opening of Contact, still has vivid memories of the 1982 trip. 'What sticks to me is the surprise of the uniformity. I loved how everybody was wearing Chairman Mao suits. It was all a sea of greens and navy blues, and they were beautiful. The sense of fashion struck me.'
By 1982, Warhol’s Mao portrait was ten years old. The image is among the Pop artist’s most instantly identifiable and iconic works, alongside his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. None of these classically Warholian works are included in Contact.
Indeed, Contact feels more like a dialogue with the dead, spooky action at a distance. Its emphasis is on perishable flesh and blood, blemishes, bodies in space, the passage of time – all themes far removed from the shellacked Pop facade that has become Warhol’s mainstream legacy. The Screen Tests, an array of nine human-sized heads lined up around M Woods’ large central hall, instill this feeling from the outset. Warhol shot almost 500 of these two-and-a-half-minute films, on 100-foot rolls of 16mm film at 24 frames per second, later screening them at 16 frames per second to achieve an analogue slow-motion effect, like a flow of molten silver. (The conflation of 'length' in terms of physical distance and in terms of time was a pet theme of Warhol’s, and crops up repeatedly in Contact.)
The Screen Tests were typically shown at parties in Warhol’s production studio and after-hours club, The Factory, or at his multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable events, which featured live performances from The Velvet Underground. Despite recent showings at MoMA in New York and MAM in Milwaukee, Ahn says the Screen Tests have a less 'enshrined exhibition history', giving her greater freedom in their selection and presentation. 'I chose a small group that represented both Factory regulars like Edie [Sedgwick] and Baby Jane, legitimate celebrities like Bob Dylan, artists such as Duchamp – who was so important to Warhol and his whole generation of artists – and relative unknowns like Susan Sontag, who was obviously a rock star intellectual then. Her essay 'Notes on "Camp"' had just come out and made waves – and influenced Warhol explicitly – but her face wasn’t famous.'
Ahn’s selection of Warhol’s Polaroid portraits, which have a more established history of exhibition and publication, likewise conflates celebrity worship with documentation of the mundane, a very Warholian juxtaposition. 'I was interested in building a portrait gallery that emphasises his use of repetition, which generates this democratising effect,' she says. 'Warhol once remarked that he didn’t like big events such as weddings and funerals – he wanted to play everything on the same level. It’s one of the few of his many quips that actually resonates with me.'
The best-known Warhol quip, which dates back to 1968, holds that, ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ Time had sped up sufficiently by 1979 that Warhol saw fit to revise his epigram to the even more terse 'In 15 minutes, everybody will be famous’. If he’d lived to see the birth of the internet, he might have coined a phrase that floats apocryphally around the world wide web today, tentatively dated to the late ’90s: 'In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.'
This segue into aphorism establishes something about Warhol that any wide-ranging survey or crowd-baiting retrospective is bound to miss: he was less preoccupied with fame than he was with time. Perhaps this accounts for Contact’s ethereal quality, its uncanniness: it rejects the technicolour Warhol with whom we’re most familiar – with the exception of a neon pink-and-yellow reading room – and restricts him to black and white, filmic silver, the decaying pastels of photographs taken 40 years prior.
In selecting which Polaroids to display, Ahn says, 'One of the most important things is how using these machine-based or standardised formats makes time an element of the work. You can see Warhol working actively with time. And often, to say that an artist is preoccupied with time is to say that he is preoccupied with death, and mortality is a major concern with all the portraiture in the show.'
The most epic portrait on display is Empire, Warhol’s 1964 film of night falling over the Empire State Building. As with his Screen Tests, Warhol screened Empire at a slower frame rate than that at which it was shot, with the final result clocking in at eight hours and five minutes. At M Woods, a slow-burning 50-minute excerpt from Empire screens on a loop in the arcade above the Screen Tests. It’s supplemented by a recording of a 'tick' sound played back 'slightly slower than a clock’s second hand', specially created by Ahn to underscore Warhol’s conscious play with time, its observation and its manipulation.
Contact does a good job of capturing this particular obsession, more subtly pervasive in Warhol’s work than even self-portraiture and serial repetition. It’s not a particularly big show, but it is considerably long.
Let’s address the obvious: Andy Warhol presaged the selfie. Though Contact goes through great pains to distance itself and its subject from Pop Art affectation, Warhol’s lifelong dedication to a medium that could now be considered the most popular and populist form of image-making does not escape notice.
'I think [Contact] is really special because it’s a true Warhol environment,’ says Eric Shiner, director of The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, sole lender of works exhibited in the show. 'I love right now in our society, when we’re so obsessed with selfies and continually documenting ourselves, that that’s what Warhol was doing, but 40 and 50 years ago,' Shiner adds. 'And to bring the work here today is especially relevant, with what’s going on in contemporary China, with WeChat. It’s just a further iteration of what Warhol was doing back in the ’60s. I can’t wait to see what selfies come out of this show.'
Shiner, who studied and worked in Japan for six years and has built a career as a specialist in contemporary Asian art, announced in July that he’ll soon be leaving The Warhol to take on a senior vice presidency with art auctioneer Sotheby’s. The last show that he curated at the museum as its director was Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which closed in August. Shiner and his colleagues worked on the show for six years – they were derailed when the artist was detained for an extended period in 2011 – and continually discovered parallels between Warhol’s prescient use of self-photography and Ai’s work, as well as contemporary mass visual culture. 'When Warhol was doing it, it wasn’t yet known as social media, but he was constantly documenting himself with his diaries, his self-portraiture, through Polaroids,' says Shiner.
In his new role at Sotheby’s, Shiner will blur the lines between the commercial and creative ends of the art world spectrum, a move that was mastered, if not invented, by Andy Warhol. 'Instead of selling ideas and concepts and exhibition proposals, I’ll be selling the actual objects themselves, and making sure that the best works of art find the best possible homes, in both private and public collections', he says. Fusing his background in Asian art with his five years at The Warhol Museum, he plans 'to bring the two cultures closer together', funneling contemporary Asian works into Western collections and vice versa.
Shiner adds that Contact gives the contemporary Chinese viewer a more complete picture of Andy Warhol than they might otherwise receive. He was in Beijing three years ago when the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) mounted a Warhol retrospective, which he notes was geared towards a primarily academic audience. 'It was great for the students,' he says of the CAFA show, ‘but I’m really thrilled to have [Contact] here in the heart of 798, knowing how many people will come to see it and make an even stronger connection between Warhol and youth culture here.'
Christopher Makos, the photographer who captured Warhol’s fleeting impressions of Beijing more than 30 years ago, echoes this sentiment. 'You’re usually so overwhelmed by the breadth of these large [Warhol] exhibitions, especially in China, because they want to do it big. So this is why this show is so interesting and important,' he says. Makos adds that Warhol himself would be enamoured with Beijing today. 'If you’re smart, which he was, and you see the changes, and you see what’s going on, you like it and you want to come back. I find Shanghai and Beijing great, very vibrant. Like the '70s and '80s in New York, actually.'
There are, of course, differences between Andy Warhol’s use of the self-portrait and the ways such images are used today. One of Ai Weiwei’s most enduring works is a selfie of sorts: a photograph of his middle finger featured prominently in the foreground, with Mao’s Tiananmen portrait fuzzed in the background. This is selfie as literally 'pointed' political statement, which is very far from Warhol’s use of the format, even if Ai’s famous 'f**k you' does bear some compositional resemblance to Makos’ 1982 portrait of Warhol in just about the same position. These days, thousands of similar images are taken in Tiananmen every day, in duplicate, sometimes ironically, sometimes reverently, often unconsciously.
And that is the main difference between Andy Warhol’s self-portraits and the ones we post of ourselves, ubiquitously, across all platforms, almost constantly: Warhol thought very seriously about what would happen to his selfies after his death. At least, this is the sense one gets walking through Contact, especially from those uncanny Screen Tests and Polaroids. It’s the touch of the past, the allure of ghosts, a self-portrait of the artist as the young man he’ll always be.