Warhol’s Shadows

During my time as Communications Coordinator I interviewed Hervé Vanel, art history professor and co-curator of the Paris Museum of Modern Art fall 2015 Warhol exhibit. The original piece was published on aup.edu.

One of Warhol’s often overlooked works is the Shadows – 102 paintings from 1979 that were commissioned by the DIA foundation. The silkscreened paintings feature two compositions based on a picture of a shadow from Warhol’s studio. They range in color from aqua green to bright yellow to blood red. Warhol was always very specific about how the Shadows were exhibited. He wanted the paintings hung edge to edge forming a long strip running along the walls of the gallery.

This fall, a landmark exhibit of Warhol’s work featuring the Shadows is opening at the Musée d’Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art), curated by art history Professor Hervé Vanel. He kindly agreed to discuss the upcoming exhibit with us.

Shadows
                                                                        The Shadows

How did you conceive of the exhibit?

When the director of the Musée d’ Art Moderne Fabrice Hergott, co-curator Sébastien Gokalp and I started thinking about the project the aim was not to produce a retrospective but an exhibit that would introduce the viewers to the Shadows.

As a curator, I believe the most important element of an exhibit is the relationship between the work and the viewer. In the case of the Shadows you can attempt to look at one painting after another but in reality your attention drifts. You become distracted and start seeing the piece as a whole, as if it were an installation. Throughout the curating process, we realized the characteristics of the Shadows are present throughout Warhol’s work and decided to introduce viewers to the piece through other works which elicited similar reactions.

We chose Warhol’s screen-tests as the openers for the exhibit: close-ups of faces in which the subjects are sitting down, merely ‘watched’ by the camera. Most people are trained to relate to artwork as attentive observers but with the screen tests new possibilities arise. You can analyze how each specific subject responds to the camera or you can observe them in a state of distraction.

What feelings did you wish to elicit in viewers?

We wanted to elicit the types of feelings that Warhol treasured most: ones that are frowned upon, such as boredom. As a viewer you shouldn’t be bored. An artwork is meant to be interesting and therefore your attitude towards the artwork should be respectful and contemplative but with Warhol this approach is disrupted.

Warhol
                Self-portrait

What other aspects of Warhol’s work did you wish to highlight?

We wanted to highlight the density of Warhol’s work to retrieve its original impact when it was exhibited in the 60s and 70s. We were specifically thinking of the 32 Campbell soups, the flowers, the electric chairs… With a retrospective, it’s a matter of selecting the best works. However it quickly becomes apparent that this does not function with Warhol’s work: would the best Campbell Soup painting be chicken noodle or mushroom? What matters is the sheer number of paintings which leads to a saturation and a feeling of blurred boundary between the canvas and the space. This is why the Shadows are extremely central and important to the conception of the exhibit.

Warhol himself actively encouraged this vision. In the summer of ’62, Warhol exhibited 32 Campbell Soup cans as one of his first major exhibitions in Los Angeles. Irving Blum, the art dealer, started to sell some of them. By the time he had sold three or four, he thought, “Well maybe it’s better to keep them together.” So he called up Warhol and asked for his advice. Warhol agreed. Blum subsequently bought them back and kept the ensemble together.

Any final insights?

All in all, we wanted to explore one fundamental question: what are the Shadows telling us about the nature of Warhol’s work? The conclusion we came to is that a sense of density pervades his entire career and offers new artistic horizons for viewers.