From Velvet Underground to REM: Andy Warhol and Gretchen Bender at Tate Liverpool
Over the years a number of exhibitions have attempted to capture the mass appeal of popular music within a gallery context. Their subjects have ranged from individual performers such as Kylie Minogue, Chrissie Hyndes and David Bowie to Tate Liverpool’s own 2013 exhibition Glam, which celebrated music and the fashion industry.
Although it pairs Andy Warhol’s work from the late sixties and seventies with Gretchen Bender’s punk videos from the late eighties and nineties, the current offering at Tate Liverpool is much more than a show about music. Warhol, for example, is represented by some of his best known works including his Brillo Boxes, soup cans and his work about Chairman Mao and Marilyn Monroe. Like his more obviously morbid images of the electric chair, the Birmingham race riots and the death of President Kennedy, they show his uncanny knack for putting his finger on the macabre pulse of American society. Their iconic quality depends on the fact that, just as Warhol’s boxes seem to have been plucked from an endless production line of identical units, so too do his Elvis and Marilyn appear to have been separated from the wider continuum of film and publicity images. The sense that what we are seeing are images that have been removed from their original context and meaning has the effect of a memento mori. As the film-maker Piero Pasolini has pointed out, his images of a grieving Jackie Kennedy look back to the traditions of the Byzantine icon. In the same way they anticipate Damien Hirst’s infatuation with death, as in the latter’s representation of his huge blue Morphos butterflies, shown as if preseerved in a Victorian bell-jar.
Gretchen Bender’s work has been somewhat overlooked since her early death in 2004. Yet her works are completely at home in this context. Among the pieces that were not commissioned by the music industry are grids of images that include a found photograph of the anonymous victims of a roadside execution. At first sight it seems that what we are looking at is the antithesis of Warhol’s preoccupation with celebrity. Yet what both artists share is their interest in the way in which modern mass communications deprive people of their individuality and deaden our response to their individual narratives. Bender, like Warhol, recognised how seductive images could be as tools of propaganda and distraction. Her 24-monitor installation Total Recall of 1987 is the culmination of this approach. Conceived at the height of the Reagan era, it combines schmaltzy TV footage with sinister promotions for the arms industry.
Despite the quality of these independent works, it is the power of the artists’ collaborations with musicians that dominate the show. In Warhol’s case they range from his early rococo designs for Jazz albums to his famous creations for the Rolling Stones. For their Sticky Fingers album he chose a pair of Levis complete with a cheekily working zip. In his next design he presented them with a phallic banana which the record’s owner was invited to unpeel from its cover. Even more significant was Warhol’s encouragement of the Velvet Underground, which the Tate’s curators rightly describe as the Factory ‘house band’. A whole gallery at Tate Liverpool has been given over to recreating the ambience of one of their gigs. The curators have done this by screening behind-the-scenes footage of the group on one wall and contemporary strobe lighting on the ceiling. On a separate wall are clips of Andy Warhol gyrating to the Velvet Underground’s music while curling a whip through his fingers.
Where Warhol’s work is frenetic, edgy and self-regarding, Gretchen Bender’s films for REM and New Order are both more mainstream and more sensuous. As editor, her collaborations with the artist Robert Longo as director interweave images of the musicians with those of stunning time-lapse photography and shots of flowers, astronauts and machinery. What links such images together is her extraordinary sense of pace and visual analogy.
So is it art? Yes, undoubtedly so and it attracted so many visitors on the day that our OCA group visited that we were unable to go round the exhibition as a single group in order to discuss the pictures. Hence we split up into threes and fours and after lunch met up again to choose other works in the permanent collection to talk about more formally. How gratifying for Tate Liverpool. No doubt Warhol himself would have been the first to understand the dangers of success.