Andy Warhol at The MAC

A 'beautifully put together' retrospective of the pop artist's work cements The MAC's place as Northern Ireland's finest

There is no doubt that this exhibition is a huge deal for The MAC, stamping its reputation at a stroke as the major arts exhibition space in Northern Ireland.

And it is a classy, beautifully put together show. The period, 1960s feel of it is super-iconic. This was a happening and it freaked everybody out!

A poster for a Velvet Underground concert reveals that superlatively 1960s character types were in attendance. 'Society submergers', 'super spatials' and 'swamis' were all present, if not necessarily, correct

This collection must to be rested for two years after this exhibition comes to a close in April 2013. I’m not surprised. Warhol’s working processes were often cheap and shoddy, and that was part of the aesthetic; it was ephemeral. There is a deliberate carelessness to Warhol’s work.

He coincided, surfing the zeitgeist as always, with the point at which people stopped making repairs, when objects with a finite life-span became commercially preferable. There’s a parallel to those early David Hockney paintings that dismayed collectors find are being eaten by their own paint.

The layout in the Tall Gallery is fabulously old fashioned: a jumble of framed Warhol posters, colourful and jostling with each other against the white of the wall. It’s impressive to see the breadth of the Pittsburgh-born artist's enterprise. The film posters, the exhibitions, the adverts, the theatrical and concert posters, but also the singularity of his vision, his mastery of design: everything sits just right; everything is precisely placed even – especially, in fact – when it isn’t.

The cow wallpaper, specially refabricated for The Mac by the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, shows you just how well dressed, how beautifully put together this exhibition is. This is an act of love as well as perversity. Why else place a collection of Warhol’s Polaroids – with artist wearing various wigs ('page boy, 'fright', 'bouffant') – flat in a huge glass fish tank? Because it’s what Andy would have wanted.

As I watch in the ante-room of the Tall Gallery, four films called Visions of Warhol play, while one of Warhol's 'silver floatations', metallic balloons shaped like pillows, bobs gently, lowers itself in front of the screen and slips to the floor, creeping slowly back towards an electric fan and shooting back up into the air again.

It does this repeatedly, always the same balloon, crashing down before billowing up again. It’s mesmeric, like watching fish in a bowl, somehow more real and more vital than the mannered and two dimensional superstars on the screen.

 

If the Tall Gallery collection is based on the adverts and commercials of Warhol’s 1960s and 70s period – busy, colourful, vibrant and fun – then the Large Gallery, documenting his 80s obsession with war, death and religion, is bleak and empty.

Colour is largely absent and the canvasses here seem cynical and obtuse, Warhol's usual absence strangely absent. Crudely rendered silk-screens of hamburgers labelled 'wholesome' and 'delicious' may hark back to his commercial illustration days, but they are dripping with irony.

His 'Dollar Sign' (1981), a diarrheic yellow and truncated at both ends like a pin sinking into flesh anticipates a decade dedicated to commercialism and greed, a decade that, culturally, Warhol helped to create.

Only his 'Camouflage' (1986), four canvases taking up an entire wall of the gallery, allows any warmth into the space, but even here the reds and pinks of the design resemble nothing so much as ruptured flesh, gouted with blood.

This is a true retrospective, though I would have liked to have seen more of Warhol’s early commercial work – he’s a lovely draftsman. The way that The Mac has organised this event reveals something about the artist. There is a sense of a journey, a narrative spine, articulated, bottom to top. There even appear to be glimpses of the man himself as he contemplates his own mortality after an astonishing, controversial career.

This is an incredible achievement for The Mac, a truly world class exhibition for an indisputably world famous artist. It is colourful and cluttered, noisy and austere, stern and playful: all human life, and all of Andy Warhol’s human life, is here. (Incidentally, spell-check doesn’t seem to recognise the word Warhol. He would have been gutted.)

Andy Warhol at The MAC continues until April 28.