Recently, two of the most iconic modern artists simultaneously opened up exhibitions at opposite ends of the country with Hockney hitting the Tate Britain and Warhol taking centre stage at the Whitworth.
Since re-opening in 2015 after an extensive renovation, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester has cemented itself as one of the country’s leading art destinations, and one of my favourite galleries. So when I saw that Artist Rooms were bringing Warhol to the Whitworth I couldn’t resist. The last time I saw an Andy Warhol I wasn’t so close to home. I was in Prague whilst inter-railing a couple of years ago when I stumbled upon the inconspicuous Gallery of Art in the historic Old Town Square. Ironically, the centuries old building has one of the best collections of modern art in Europe and Warhol’s I’m Ok exhibition holds pride of place, including his famous Campbell’s soup and Marilyn Monroe prints. Now I was in slightly less surreal surroundings but Warhol’s work was still equally eye-catching in Manchester as it had been in Prague.
Self-Portrait, Warhol, 1986
The pop art icon dominates the Whitworth and the white washed walls of the gallery makes his use of colour even more striking. Red appears to be his colour of choice and reflects his preoccupation with death following a failed assassination attempt against him by feminist activist Valerie Solanas in 1968, around which the exhibition is framed. The exhibition is predominantly made up of work from the last decade of Warhol’s life and represents his growing fascination with mortality, corruption, and the faltering ‘American Dream’. The most obvious examples on display include his morbid repetition of electric chairs and self portraits with skulls and scars, which are juxtaposed against pop art dollar signs and cartoon hamburgers.
Yet, there is nothing particularly significant about the work itself – it’s been exhibited in the UK before and many curators have attempted to present a new perspective on Warhol long before he came to the Whitworth. What is significant, is the timing of this exhibition. It’s opening comes at a time of heightened political anxiety, coinciding with the controversial election of Donald Trump just ten days previously and the fallout of the EU referendum vote. It is the context the exhibition finds itself in which makes Warhol’s politically charged works as relevant as they are provocative, and Trump’s revival of the ‘American Dream’ rhetoric brings the exploration of identity and politics into an even sharper view. The iconic dollar signs and colourful camouflage become the stand-out pieces. You may have seen them before, but the Whitworth manages to show you them to you in a new way.
Dollar Sign, Warhol, 1981 – photo by Jan Janchlebik
As for Hockney, don’t be fooled by his fame as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists – his exhibition is not at the Tate Modern – something I only found out after asking a rather exasperated guide for help. We had to quickly navigate the tube and run along the riverbank to the Tate Britain where Hockney was actually housed. But I like to feel as though I’ve worked for my art so I didn’t mind. Technically you weren’t allowed to take photos, but I think Hockney would have appreciated my dissent and I proceeded to carry out some guerrilla photography and to get shouted at by stewards.
The retrospective covers 60 years worth of work and illustrates how Hockney’s style has developed over the years, and how he continues to develop. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition unfolds as a diary. It was the first opportunity I’d had to see any of this work from his time as a student at the Royal College of Art. It’s crude, playful, and unapologetically autobiographical. I would have liked there to have been more of a focus on his, as of then, unpolished style. Instead, the exhibition is preoccupied with Hockney’s move to Los Angeles and subsequent return to the Yorkshire Wolds. It’s fair enough, they are his most eye-catching works. After all, the blue swimming pool and pink background of ‘A Bigger Splash’ epitomises Hockney’s most self-assured style.
A Bigger Splash, Hockney, 1967
It’s fair to say that Hockney fell in love with California, describing it as “a scene that did not exist elsewhere. I suppose I was like a child in a sweet shop.” His time in California inspired a change of style, and a change of medium. He started using fast-drying acrylics to create the vibrancy of sun-drenched Malibu and the colours used are deliberately bright, even verging on artificial. This creates a romantic, stylised, and almost surreal landscape – and instantly recognisable as Hockney. What’s more, the Tate’s perhaps risky decision to use a pastel pink backdrop paid off, and it manages to the elevate his colours rather than dull them.
In the early 1980s, Hockney changes his style again and the exhibition changes with him. You’re ushered into a new room filled with his experimental photo ‘joiners’. Starting off with Polaroids and then 35mm, he worked by combining dozens of prints to create one composite image. This latest change in medium allowed Hockney to capture a determined sense of movement and play around with multiple viewpoints. For a while he refused to use anything else, but apparently frustrated with its limitations, he went back to painting. And with another change of medium came yet another change of landscape. He began returning to Yorkshire, where he grew up and where his mother still lived, in the 1990s. Greens and yellows now replace the blues and pinks of his California style but the colours are still equally as bold.
A Closer Winter Tunnel, Hockney, 2006
Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Hockney is still experimenting. Which is perhaps the nicest word for his foray into iPad drawing and filmmaking by attaching cameras onto his Jeep going through the Yorkshire countryside. Despite this, it manages to be a satisfying ending to the exhibition. From his tongue-and-cheek pencil drawings of his student days, to his iconic images of Californian swimming pools, through to his joiners, and recent return to Yorkshire. He doesn’t shy away from changing up his style, ways of working, and, if somewhat unsuccessfully, embracing new technologies as he goes. “I think I am seeing more clearly now than ever,” he said in 2011, “We’re on a roll.”
Andy Warhol, Hockney, 1974 (left) David Hockney Polaroid, Warhol, 1973 (middle), David Hockney, Warhol, 1974 (right)
Hockney and Warhol are the two undisputed poster boys of modern art and the two exhibitions at either end of the country testifies to an enduring fascination with both them and their work. And they were equally fascinated by each other – they first met in 1963, stayed friends, and even did the other’s portrait. Previously unpublished polaroids taken by Andy Warhol of David Hockney have just been released, full of candids and staged portraits, giving a nice insight into the artist’s friendship. So maybe less Hockney versus Warhol and maybe more Hockney and Warhol. Why have one world-renowned modern artist exhibition when you can have two?
By Alice Avis, for more of her brilliant writing Click Here.