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Warhol legacy takes National Gallery spotlight

An extensive exhibit that revisits Andy Warhol's legacy and examines successors to his pop art reign takes over the National Gallery of Canada this summer.
Andy Warhol created his silkscreen portrait of Mick Jagger in 1975. ((Andy Warhol Foundation/ARS/SODRAC/Tate Photography))

An extensive exhibit that revisits pop artist Andy Warhol's legacy and examines successors who also blur the lines of art, commerce and entertainment takes over the National Gallery of Canada this summer.

Gallery director Marc Mayer and assistant contemporary art curator Jonathan Shaughnessy unveiled details about Pop Life: Art in a Material World in Toronto Wednesday.

The exhibit will make its sole North American stop at the Ottawa gallery in June. It features more than 250 artworks — including paintings, drawings, videos and sculptures — created over the past 30 years by the likes of Warhol, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Martin Kippenberger and Takashi Murakami.

The idea is to re-evaluate Warhol's legacy, "especially that time around the late 1970s and the 1980s when, you know, Andy Warhol appears on Love Boat… when critics said, 'He's not doing anything relevant anymore,' " Shaughnessy told CBC News on Wednesday.

Artists, these days, they have a message. They want to get it out there and they're not so interested in sitting in their studios. They’ll just get out there into whatever media realm there is.

Critics at the time didn't know what to make of the American art icon's more commercial endeavours, from movie-making to fashion photography, he said.

"But when we look at all the artists that came after — who are doing pieces that were staged and played with [both] the art world and the media to expose incongruities — maybe Andy Warhol was onto something and it's something we're only seeing now.

"Artists, these days, they have a message. They want to get it out there and they're not so interested in sitting in their studios. They’ll just get out there into whatever media realm there is," Shaughnessy said.

Broader audiences

Damien Hirst's 1992 identical twins installation was also recreated when the Pop Life show opened at the Tate Modern in 2009. ((Damien Hirst/Science Ltd/Tate Photograph))
Pop Life moves from Warhol into the work of subsequent contemporary artists who also navigated the complex intersection of art, marketing and mass media in their attempts to create pieces that engage a broader audience.

So-called British bad-boy Hirst, for instance, regularly sparks debate in the art world as much for his challenging installations as for the astronomical prices his creations command.

"The jury is constantly going back and forth about whether he's just playing the system and is he just making art to get exposed rather than for merit," said Shaughnessy.

He noted, however, that Hirst rose to prominence during the Thatcher era and had to demonstrate a keen entrepreneurial spirit to even get his artwork noticed in the first place.

"Everywhere I look as a contemporary curator, I see artists needing to use entrepreneurial zeal as a way to … disseminate their art and make it known. From there, then, you need to judge that message. And that's where the discussion starts and that's why it's important to have a show like [Pop Life]."

Other upcoming NGC exhibitions:
  • 19th Century French Photographs.
  • Nicolas Baier: Pareidolias.
  • Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
  • Angela Grauerholz.
  • Central European Drawings.
  • Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie.
  • Carl Beam.
  • It is what it is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art.

The Ottawa stop for Pop Life, which began at London's Tate Modern and is on display in Hamburg, Germany, will also incorporate elements that will immerse visitors in the art on display.

Using adult volunteers, the National Gallery of Canada plans to recreate Hirst's 1992 performance piece Ingo, Torsten — which featured identical twins sitting before a pair of his trademark spot paintings.

Also, the gallery will reconstruct Haring's famed 1980s-era Pop Shop, the striking, music-filled retail emporium where the late U.S. artist sold his artwork reproduced on low-cost items, such as t-shirts and buttons, as a way to make his imagery more accessible to the public.

The intention is to give visitors a taste of "what all the fuss might have been like" when the works first appeared and to "restage certain moments in the art history of our time," Shaughnessy said.

"You get some extraordinary conversations started ... and it goes well beyond the vitrines and display cases showing documentation of significant events."

Pop Life: Art in a Material World opens in Ottawa June 11 and continues through Sept. 19.

Keith Haring is seen in his Pop Shop in New York in 1986. ((Charles Dolfi-Michels/Keith Haring Foundation))