Regina Hackett wrote sensibly in the October issue of Modern Painters about Tate Moderns "Pop Life: Art in a Material World," so I feel the burden to be helpful is off me. The show features late Warhol plus 22 other artists of his time and of the subsequent period up to our own moment, and the theme is (more or less) art goes commercial. It was originally supposed to be called "Sold Out," but one of the artists (rumored to be Damien Hirst) complained, so the title was changed. Notwithstanding this demonstration of artist power, my main feeling is that the artists don’t seem to control their experiments in the same way the curators control theirs. For all the curatorial talk about art stars making brands of themselves, as if this were somehow subversive, what the would-be stars actually seem to do is lurch naively up to the problem of being unknown outsiders and bash it over the head with some attention-getting stunt or other.
The results, as brought together in "Pop Life," have a sort of strangeness that is not necessarily the theoretically credible or respectable estrangement that the curators seem to blithely assume is always present. In other words, the artists seem anything from morons to cynics, but they rarely seem exactly critical. And if they often seem creative, it’s not necessarily in a deep way. You find yourself admiring their bright strategies for solving the problem of art’s traditional difficulty, both for an uneducated audience and for the individual struggling artist impatient to make it up the rungs of society through art.
Plenty of ideas
Not that the art doesn’t have any ideas. Most of "Pop Life" consists of restaged exhibitions from the last 20 years or so. They all hark back to Warhol in some way. The artists don’t do the same things he did, but they draw out or try to build on the implications of his concern with voyeurism and the mass media. So the glamour of African-American pop culture in the early ’90s is strangely celebrated by the duo known as Pruitt-Early: Rob Pruitt, who survives as an elderly hot trendy of art’s inner sanctum, and Jack Early, who seems to have disappeared. If the idea appears to be one of social comment but no meaningful comment is actually being made, there is nevertheless something amusing about the nonsense.
Warhol’s films are often about sex. If there’s a narrative, you don’t remotely take it seriously, but if there’s a metanarrative, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary to worry about it either. Cosey Fanni Tuttis work in "Pop Life" is centered on voyeuristic sex. Tutti is a ’70s scandal artist, and "Pop Life" is ’80s onward, but she’s in anyway, presumably to even out the overwhelming maleness. Also, she’s less well-known to the new audience for art than the other figures, so that’s another kind of repetition or sameness that her inclusion deals with. The organizers accept her classification of her work as a professional porn model as performance art (it’s some kind of critical intervention in the porn industry). The idea of encouraging people to line up in "Pop Life" and stare at Tutti’s genitalia in photos taken for ghastly porn mags is modern shock treatment: The audience is jolted into taking gender politics seriously. This, at least, is the optimistic reading — otherwise Tutti’s stuff is mindless and sad.
While porn and glamour are to some extent normalized in society and the artist has to perform certain operations on their representation so they will seem strange, Richard Princes Spiritual America, an ironic restaging of the 1975 photo of a nude, heavily made-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields taken by Gary Gross for the Playboy publication Sugar ’n’ Spice, effortlessly hits the (perverted) bull’s-eye. (This installation was removed from "Pop Life" before opening to the public, on the advice of the Obscene Publications Unit of London’s Metropolitan Police.)
Then there’s money. Takashi Murakami and Hirst make money and cleverly mock it at the same time, supposedly. I don’t actually know how Murakami is supposed to be both against and for money. He just seems like a transparently commercial me-too Warhol/Koons/Hirst. But I suppose he is given prominence in the show for something like the same reasons as Tutti, only in this case ethnicity replaces gender. Hirst’s work here is shockingly flabby. But at least the subject matter of False Idol, a white calf with ilded hooves suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde, which was part of his $200 million-plus Sotheby’s sale last year, relates clearly to the problem of confused modern values.
Warhol portrays a strange, new, alienated consumer worldview. When his ’80s children show us shopping, it’s a logical continuation, inside the mind of the alienated yuppie. Also Warhol made witty comments about art being "the best business," implying you could normalize the art experience so it wasn’t like going to a church to transform your inner being but like going to a store to get what you want. Keith Harings 1980s Pop Shop and the shop known as the Shop that Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas ran for six months in 1993 are both comments about the possibility of a street-level connection between art and society. Ashley Bickertons symbolic 1988 self-portrait sculpture (the artist’s only work included in "Pop Life"), an obscure object covered in corporate logos and installation instructions, is a brainier comment on commodity fetishism.
Warhol is always pretty funny. Maurizio Cattelan has a dead horse in the show. You can’t keep flogging one, seems to be the idea (or joke).
Help yourself to pain
One idea in "Pop Life" simply doesn’t work. A muddled attempt to restage Martin Kippenbergers frequently altered installation of other people’s art in Berlin’s Paris Bar, an artists’ hangout through the ’80s and ’90s, ends up making him seem like yet another art comedian. Kippenberger made his name into a brand and kept up a furious output of objects, all of them containing highly readable elements (signs, words) without any of his stuff being clear in the way that Warhol always is. "We don’t have problems with people who steal our identities, because they also get our pain," reads the slogan around a painting by Kippenberger in "Pop Life." It has a frame made out of stapled cardboard packaging and features an image of an egg. Printed orange on the cardboard relates to painted orange in the painting; that’s about as logical or transparent as the work gets. His sympathetic scruffy roughness as a painter and his design eye as a poster maker — geared to the intriguing and the careful rather than the obvious — also make Kippenberger a wrong note in the show.
Owning dead junk
A space of equal size to Murakami’s is given to Jeff Koonss 1991 "Made in Heaven" series. These objects and images don’t really seem to be about looking but about ownership, which is depressing. They’re also a bit ignorant: One is called Manet when the imagery clearly refers to Courbet. When the "Made in Heaven" works first began to emerge, their revolting, degraded sexuality was funny, an in-joke for the art world about the outer world’s fantasies about art world depravity. But now "Made in Heaven" seems to be only about the philistine owners of these large dead objects showing off. These include the Tate itself, which through a bequest to the nation by art dealer Anthony d’Offay, recently acquired Bourgeois Bust-Jeff and Ilona, a statue of Koons and La Cicciolina in a nonpornographic, but aesthetically abject, marble embrace.
"We’re hot, we’re cool, we’re Pruitt-Early!" — I remember the amusing soundtrack for the young artist duo’s "Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue" show of posters of African-American music and sports stars made into flimsy art objects, which they put together for the Leo Castelli gallery in 1992. The music ranged in mood from menacing and violent to joyous — from N.W.A. and Public Enemy to Ce Ce Penniston’s "Finally." Banal self-advertising comments by Pruitt-Early were edited into the music loop, making a hilariously feeble white echo of the music’s chest-thumping power strut. Unfortunately, the exhibition was hated because it was considered racist. The artists were thought to be oblivious fools who couldn’t tell how offensive they were. I personally thought the show did not deserve the hate. The problem with reconstructing only a fragment of it here is that rather than being offensive or funny it just seems like nothing. The original setup relied on jokey stream-of-consciousness connections in which objects, mood, atmosphere, words, and music all play their part — above all, a certain low-humorous relentlessness. It was social comment, not so much on Blackness as on modern consciousness generally.
More successful than the Pruitt-Early room is a display of bric-a-brac from the Lucas-Emin shop. Funny little sewn- and stuck-together objects, most of which must have taken only a few minutes to do, summarize the well-known iconography of both artists: sex symbols for Lucas and autobiographical ephemera for Emin. At the same time, they satirize the whole idea of selling a brand identity through sex. Cheerfully idiotic slogans include "I feel fucky" and "Have you wanked over me yet?" Although Emin has become an insufferable chav Prada monster, a large blanket by her, sewn with texts in different colors and styles, is one of the few things in "Pop Life" that actually has a quality of beauty about it. As art, this shop was better than Haring’s Pop Shop. The short-lived Lucas-Emin project was smirky and naughty, and part of its success was that it didn’t really give a shit about society. The idea was to stir up art world emotion, to be punky about worthiness. The current received wisdom that the objects sold in it were crappy or incompetent is wrong; they were cleverly honed and edited, and they had energy. The populism of Pop Shop, by contrast, was always unoriginal and sentimental. The place stood for the wrong balance of do-gooding and self-aggrandizement. You could only salute the worthiness of selling jolly T-shirts to raise money for aids and drug awareness, but there was nowhere aesthetic to go with this.
Turk funny, Fraser smug
Among the single works dotted throughout "Pop Life," Gavin Turks 1993 3-D portrait of himself doubling as Sid Vicious is only funny. But this is better than Andrea Frasers 2003 DVD Untitled — a collector is invited to pay $20,000 to have sex with the artist; for a long time he strokes her arms in a phony way, and she leers like someone pretending to be sexy — which is only smug.
The Warhol of the period that "Pop Life" is interested in is a boring churner-outer of market fodder. He had been a social observer, and he was still that in a way, but his relationship to his subject had changed: He had gone from satire to sucking up. His art was "disturbing" only because it was tedious to think about it. Since he died, academia and the market have gone to work on him in their different ways but with the same effect: We’re now conditioned to think of everything he did as loaded with significance. But what we see by him in "Pop Life" are images that look as dull and distracted as the mind that created them must have been at that particular point. (Presumably all his fizz went into collecting the nutty junk that was later found in his house.) The other type of Warhol-generated material in "Pop Life" is printed and photographic ephemera reminding you of the inescapable shallowness of his scene. Warhol is a fascinating figure, but in the end you’ve got to consider what you’re actually looking at and what it’s doing to you. Why put yourself through it?
em>"What I Thought After I Came Out of "Pop Life"" originally appeared in the December 2009 / January 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' December 2009 / January 2010 Table of Contents.