In May, the auction house Christie's sold one of Andy Warhol's self-portraits for $38.4 million. The Warhol Museum employs full-time archivists who catalog boxes of ephemera that Warhol called "time capsules" — with more than 8,000 cubic feet of material and filled with perhaps half a million objects. His name has become synonymous with iconic images that can be easily imagined in the minds of his audience — a plush and eternally inviting Marilyn, a silkscreened banana, a Campbell's soup can, triple Elvises. Few artists have remained as successful, as influential and as prolific 24 years after their death.
So Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol's Work starts at an advantage. The American public can't get enough of Warhol, and The Frist Center has never before hosted an exhibit devoted entirely to his work. As the first comprehensive multimedia exploration of the central role of music and dance in Warhol's work, Warhol Live spills over with ideas and sounds and imagery. The tumult of information, images and sounds creates a frenzied pace in the exhibition, one that perfectly parallels Warhol's frenetic, ambitious life.
The exhibit moves chronologically but also cyclically, beginning with the influence Hollywood had on Warhol and ending with Warhol as a major influence on Hollywood. As an attempt to wrangle the exhibit's breadth, the curators created parallel spaces that act like bookends within the exhibit. One of the exhibition's first rooms is filled with an extensive collection of record covers, for artists as varied as Billy Squier and John Cale, that Warhol designed. At the exhibition's end, issues of Warhol's Interview Magazine feature cover images of artists such as Madonna, Cher and Diana Ross. These displays of Warhol's commercial work tell his story just as well, if not better, than the fine art in the exhibition. It's an understated effect, but the point is well made: Warhol not only achieved the same fame that he coveted, he came to define it for others.
Another pair of rooms that help rein in the ambitious exhibit are the Silver Clouds room and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable room. Both spaces counter the academic quality of the exhibit's archival content by contextualizing Warhol's life and his art. Largely informed by the nightclubbing and drug culture that Warhol embraced, the rooms are like dreamscapes. The Silver Cloud room is filled with metallic pillows half-filled with helium that invite you to bounce them around like psychedelic beach balls. Ironically, the room devoted to Exploding Plastic Inevitable — the one with the label at its entrance that warns, "Visitors physically sensitive to flashing lights may wish to avoid the gallery" — has the effect of being more of a respite than the "excessive visual overload" it was intended to replicate. Although the parallel between a sanctuary and a nightclub shouldn't be overlooked, the centrally placed bed covered with a silk sheet, the dimly flashing lights and the low drone of Velvet Underground songs looks less like a hedonistic nightclub and more like — well, a museum.
The contextual elements of the exhibition ground the show, but the more unknown, underground pieces of art are its highlights. One of Warhol's disaster paintings appropriates a photograph snapped just moments after someone has been thrown from their car in a tragic wreck, pinned up against a telephone pole like a religious martyr. The horrific image is blown up and repeated, creating a detached quality that is equal parts consoling and cruel.
Warhol famously said that all you need to know about him and his works is already there. "Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am," he is quoted as saying. "There's nothing behind it." But Warhol Live isn't that kind of exhibit. Its title calls to mind a theatrical show announcement emblazoned across a flashing marquee, but it also points to the fact that this is an exhibition not of Warhol's art but of his life. It succeeds because it brings the work out of its historical confines. By refusing to draw a line between Warhol's art and the rest of his life — his social life, his commercial work, and the pop-culture landscape he eventually came to dominate as a billboard-sized brand name — a much more interesting and contemporary look at his work arises. It is just the kind of exhibit that, for better or for worse, Warhol would have created for himself.