HONG KONG — I wasn’t interested in the exhibition Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Not even while knowing that this is the largest ever showing of Warhol’s work in Asia, that it opened in Singapore and will also travel to Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo, or that this marks the 25th anniversary of the artist’s death.
Besides, I’d already seen the excellent collection of Warhol’s video works presented at the Osage Gallery’s Kwun Tong space in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum.
But, biting the bullet, I decided to visit the show anyway, and I soon realized what my issue was: I’d been affected by that jadedness Robert Storr deplored when he lambasted art’s practitioners for denying works of art because they’d beenshown one too many times, all the while forgetting that an entire public has not been as lucky as others to have seen such works in the first place.
In Hong Kong, the Warhol exhibition has proved popular; this is the first time many have seen Warhol’s work in person, in a city where contemporary art has yet to gain wide recognition amongst the local public. And the crowd is diverse: old and young, with regular tours directing visitors through the show, which charts Warhol’s evolution from the 1950s to the ’80s. It includes a room of the artist’s silver clouds as well as a small re-creation of the Factory space, complete with a video of Warhol painting Mao shown in the same reel as Warhol painting a drag queen, which is kind of great, if you think about the portraits of Mao with pink or red lips.
I felt like an idiot almost immediately after entering the show, forgetting why I’d ever dismissed Warhol in the first place as I gazed upon a series of homoerotic studies of unidentified men in graphite on paper from the 1940s–50s, including a pair caught in an all-consuming embrace and a torso zoomed in on at the crotch. Those, coupled with a sketch of the artist’s unkempt kitchen and a book cover illustration for Warhol’s 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy (1954) in the same room, and I was reunited with Warhol’s wit.
That Warhol’s sexuality shines through is refreshing, given the prevalence of the usual suspects: screen prints of Marilyn, Jackie O, Liz, Mick, and Ali, not to mention the artist’s self-portraits. In the first room, there is also a collection of photographs by Leila Davies Singelis of a young, pre-makeover Warhol in New York City in ’51 — a reminder of his endearing, rough-edged elegance, rooted in a fragile and effeminate Norma Jean kind of innocence that we often forget when thinking about him.
Indeed, of all the photographs on view, there’s one telling image by Warhol that sticks out: a 1986 photograph of a Jean Genet poster — perhaps for A Song of Love — pasted around a lamppost, with the printed letters “LOVE” clearly in view. The shot looks like a calculated composition, and with those choices, the queer kid from Pennsylvania who came to New York to make it as an artist comes into in full view, without even being featured in the frame.
This kind of duplicity is Warhol in a nutshell, recalling one of the artist’s more ambiguous statements presented in the show: “I am a deeply superficial person.” The statement cuts to the core of Warhol’s legacy, because we can never quite know if he actually meant what he said or not. This edge to Warhol’s work is often overlooked, but it is emphasized in the curation of the Hong Kong show, which inserts references to a suicide jump, a body hanging out of a crashed car, a gun, a few hammers and sickles, and some Rorschach prints nestled between Superstars and advertisements. It is the gaps in Warhol’s visual and articulated statements that are the most interesting.
This exhibition triumphs in its portrayal of Warhol: flesh and blood and driven by curiosities, obsessions, and desires; an artist who never stopped working. Toward the latter part of the show there is an image by Christopher Makos of a wrinkled, almost scraggly Warhol in China in 1982, his ever-present camera at the ready. The photo comes after a room dedicated to the artist’s “Time Capsules”: cardboard boxes in which the artist stored paraphernalia collected during his life’s travels. It leads into a suite of photographs the artist took throughout the eighties, including an intimate portrait of a doe-eyed Sly Stallone, who looks so much like those men Warhol drew back in the 40’s and 50’s.
Time Capsule number 23 documents the artist’s visit to China and Hong Kong, and there’s resonance in that they are being presented for the first time in the latter city, a place that arguably might best understand Warhol’s love of business as an art form. There is a name card of a Hong Kong shirt maker, a telephone number scrawled onto the notepad from the Mandarin Oriental, an itinerary for his China trip and a news clipping from The South China Morning Post. Given that Warhol took the time to archive these objects, perhaps reflecting a certain level of excitability, curiosity and/or meticulousness, the capsule serves as a reminder that Warhol, as out of place as he may seem, belongs in Asia, too. He was probably fascinated by it.
It felt good revisiting Warhol. The simplicity and ambiguity of the images on view present a picture of a contemporary culture he played a part in shaping and making visible to the masses. Whether seen in America, Europe, China, or anywhere else, this is work that inhabits the middle ground; where the culture of commercialism and consumerism is neither good nor bad but neutral, common, and real. That reality is perhaps more ugly and unforgiving today as it was when Andy Warhol was alive, yet it is beautiful all the same, because it makes us who we are now more than ever. Warhol saw that, for better or for worse.
Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal is showing at the Hong Kong Museum of Art through March 31.