Warhol, Flowers [Large Flowers] 1964, Glenstone, Md © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

The 70 paintings and drawings by Andy Warhol on view at Kunstmuseum Basel cover a pivotal period in the development of an artist best remembered for his flaming silk-screened prints of American icons. But the Basel expo, covering years 1961 to 1964, aims to show that Warhol was much more than just a Pop designer.

When Warhol produced the silk-screened portraits of American icons, including Coca Cola bottles, Campbell soup cans and Liz Taylor and presented them as art, he acquired instant fame, but was he really being taken seriously?

The exhibition “Andy Warhol. The Early Sixties” at Kunstmuseum Basel until January 23, 2011 sets out to show how Warhol’s reputation as a master of Pop art should not obscure his authenticity as an artist.

The four years between 1961 and 64 represent the pivotal period during which Warhol progressively abandoned painting in favour of silk-screening and other methods of multiple production.

“It was a time during which Warhol developed his entire pictorial language,” Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, director of the Kunstmuseum and co-curator of the exhibition indicates.

  

Left: Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Vegetable Beef), 1962 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

Right: Do It Yourself (Flowers), 1962, Photo: Daros Collection, Schweiz © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

Kunstmuseum Basel has completed its own Warhol collection with loans from private collections and American museums to produce a show that contains pieces that are engagingly familiar, but that are presented in a way to cast a new light on Warhol.

Nina Zimmer, who co-curated the exhibition with Mendes Bürgi explains in an exclusive interview how the project was developed and why it only covers a short period in Warhol’s artistic life.

The starting point, she says, was the prescient acquisition of three early Warhol works at the beginning of the 70s by the then Kunstmuseum director, Franz Meyer.

“We are proud of our tradition of buying American art when it was still considered revolutionary and controversial,” Nina Zimmer points out.

The museum also purchased a large number of Warhol drawings for a 1998 retrospective.

Ginger Rogers, 1962, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, Karl August Burckhardt-Koechlin-Fonds, Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

“But it wasn’t until we prepared the present show that we discovered that we own the second largest collection of Warhol drawings in the world, after the Pittsburgh Warhol Museum,” Zimmer says.

Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928, Andy Warhol was the son of a coalminer from Slovakia who studied pictorial design at what was to become Carnegie Mellon University before moving to New York at the age of 21.

For more than a decade he worked in illustration and advertising, successfully earning a living as a commercial artist closely associated with the fashion and record making industry. By the time he was 30, he had begun a parallel career.

In 1961, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles presented Warhol’s first fine arts solo exhibition on the theme of Campbell’s Soup Cans, followed the same year by the Stable Gallery in New York, so named because it was located in a former livery stable in lower Manhattan.

Coca Cola, dollar bills, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were already part of his imagery.


 

Left: Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963, Sammlung Froehlich, Stuttgart, Photo: Sammlung Froehlich, Stuttgart © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

Right: Liz #1 [Early Colored Liz], 1963, Private Collection © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

“He originally painted everything by hand,” Zimmer points out, “but gradually, as he starts to introduce mechanical means, he abandons painting.”

“We decided to concentrate on this precise passage from painterly expression to silk-screening, but we also wanted to show how Warhol preserves smudges and mistakes in his reproductions as if to constantly remind us of a human presence,” she reveals.

“Warhol’s gradual and deliberate detachment from painting was a truly radical gesture,” she says, adding that there is belief defended by art historians and critics that Warhol’s ‘anti-painting’ changed the course of art.

On the occasion of a 2000 exhibition in New York dedicated to the same “heyday” between 1962 and 1965, Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice: “You can hear the clang of history around him. The train of American art history leaps off the track and begins a new course, the one we’re on now, with Warhol. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without him.”

“If you think you know these most famous paintings, think again, because these works can set your mind on fire,” Saltz adds.

The years covered by the exhibition saw the assassination of Kennedy and the death of Marilyn Monroe in the US, but according to Zimmer, Warhol’s stance is always one of indifference.

Green Disaster #2, 1963, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Photo Robert Häusser © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich

“When he deals with the subject of death, he empties it of meaning to retain only the shock value and use it as ornamentation, as he does is the series where he uses the images of car crashes to create a pattern.” (In the exhibition).

By 1964, according to Zimmer, Warhol had completed the trajectory of his pictorial language.

He turned to filmmaking and became a fixture of the New York nightlife before almost dying from gunshot wounds inflicted by a disgruntled female former collaborator.

When he eventually returned to painting in the 70s with his portraits of Mao, he basically used the same techniques, Nina Zimmer points out.

Warhol died unexpectedly in 1987 of complications from a gall bladder operation. But his estate was in remarkable order and is managed by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a formidable watchdog for the authenticity of the works that spilled out of Warhol’s “Factory”.

“By concentrating on his early period, we are claiming that Warhol’s rich artistic practices were already in place by 1964,” Zimmer summarizes.

Until January 23, 2011

Andy Warhol. The Early Sixties
Paintings and Drawings 1961-1964
Curators: Bernhard Mendes Bürgi & Nina Zimmer

With works on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum and MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh

Additional insight into showman Warhol (not in the exhibition) can be obtained by viewing a short 1981 film by Danish director Jorgen Leth in which Andy Warhol eats a Hamburger. He nibbles at a hamburger, the ultimate symbol of Americana, but instead of smothering it with Ketchup, he dips it gingerly into a tiny dollop on the side of the plate.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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