On ViewAndy Warhol Museum
June 4 – August 28, 2016
On ViewHall Of Architecture, Carnegie Museum
May 28 – August 29, 2016
Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei are closely tied to mass media. Both are celebrities who are famous beyond the narrow bounds of the art world, and both have enormous studios with small armies of assistants. They never really met, but Warhol visited Beijing and Ai lived in Manhattan from 1983 – 93, and so saw Warhol in passing. And so we learn from Eric Shiner’s interview published in the exhibition catalogue, when Ai came to New York, he read The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). “To me,” he said, “Warhol always remained the most interesting figure in American art.” This show offers, then, the prospect of a creative confrontation between two major figures from very different artistic traditions and presents an important question: how, exactly, are Western contemporary artistic traditions adapted when they migrate to China?
The exhibition occupies all seven floors of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Ai’s early figurative images, Suzhou (1979) demonstrates that he, like Warhol, was a well-trained illustrator. Like Warhol, he made assisted readymades including Hanging Man (1985), a portrait of Marcel Duchamp fashioned from a coat hanger, which is juxtaposed with Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964). His informal photographs of social situations can be compared to Warhol’s. And his Neolithic Pottery with Coca-Cola Logo (2007) is not unlike Warhol’s use in paintings and sculptures of coke bottles.
Both artists are also compulsive communicators—Warhol with his camera and tape recorder, Ai with his iPhone and on line. Ai’s I.O.U. Wallpaper (2011 – 13), composed of IOUs to people who gave him money for support when he was arrested, is akin to Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper (Pink on yellow) (1966/ 015). As the Warhol curator Matt Wrbican notes in his catalogue essay, both Warhol and Ai love cats and so have cat-filled studios. And in the Hall of Architecture, across town at the Carnegie Museum of Art, alongside the plaster casts of old master European architecture and sculpture, are Ai’s twelve massive bronze beasts of the Chinese zodiac, his reconstruction of sculptures in Beijing, which was destroyed by the British invaders in 1860.
And yet, this confrontation never really comes off. Partly the problem is that we simply don’t see enough of Ai’s art. In the catalogue, less than two pages are devoted to the listing of Ai’s work on display, compared to eleven pages for Warhol. It was natural to showcase Warhol’s art, much of which is already in the museum. But the quality of most of Ai’s art in this show does not inspire confidence. There are too many versions of his clever photographic Study of Perspective (2005 – 11) in which he photographs himself giving the finger to the Eiffel tower, the Louvre, the painting of Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City and other monuments. His Mao (Facing Forward) (1986), an oddly dull painting, hardly deserves comparison with Warhol’s familiar images of Mao. And his Surveillance Camera (2010), sculpted in marble, is ponderous. There are only two first-rate Ais here: the video Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) and the assisted readymade Grapes (2011), as assemblage of Qing Dynasty stools. The luxurious (and expensive) catalogue contains useful information but also theory-heavy essays; the exhibition checklist is printed in microscopic typeface in the notes.
When Ai was one year old, he was sent with his family to a labor camp. For obvious good reasons he has become a culture hero in the West for responding heroically, and at real personal risk, to the political pressures of the Chinese government. As a gay man, Warhol faced real risks, but he had an extremely successful public career, including visits to the Reagan White House. Warhol’s political support of a Democratic presidential candidate resulted in IRS audits; Ai has been jailed, fined, and assaulted by the police; and (for a period) he had his passport withdrawn. His political activism thus has been truly dangerous, while Warhol’s was not. Ai learned a lot from Warhol, but he is a very different person—and, of course, his situation is very different. And so, ultimately the parallels between these artists are quite limited. Ai says: “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.” If I understood that marvelously suggestive statement, perhaps I would understand this show.