Photo By: Jon Tyson from Unsplash

Past blue, fuschia and yellow walls, is a large red and blue self-portrait that begins the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

There’s a placard on the wall nearby that reads, “Andy Warhol reimagined what art could be in a time of great social, political, and technological change.” 

Historical context accompanies his work throughout the exhibit, enriching the spectators’ understanding of what the art meant at the time it was being created.

The exhibit is laid out in chronological order. The first room features family photos, early paintings, and a wall of drawings. The drawings feature primarily male subjects, some are head and shoulders portraits, others are nudes where genitals are juxtaposed with delicate natural imagery of flowers and seashells. The line-work is organic and gentle, there’s a romantic quality to the images. These drawings introduce Warhol’s interrogation of American gender roles.

The next room features Warhol’s screen-printed works. Here he creates art that repeats the same image, a commentary on consumerism and mass media. Seeing the brushstrokes on a painting that was designed to look commercial infuses it with humanity. This humanity appears in the slight irregularity of the screen-printed paintings as well. In the prints of Marilyn Monroe her mole is slightly offset in the different layers of paint, emphasizing the intentional imperfection of these pieces.

The paintings Elvis I and II use celebrity iconography to interrogate notions of masculinity. On the left is Elvis printed in black on a silver canvas, like a black and white film, with a gun in his hand. On the right he appears in colour with wide blue eyes, dark lashes, full pink lips, and purple pants. 

The placard on the wall describes how the paintings, “transform Elvis into a homoerotically charged, feminized icon.”

Comparably, Warhol said, “he’s more than a hockey player, he’s an entertainer” about Wayne Gretzky. The portrait of Gretzky that hangs in the exhibit is colourful and depicts a masculine Canadian icon with shiny lips and delicate features. Warhol’s understanding of celebrity as a performance and the way he used that performance to interrogate gender roles are displayed in the depiction of both Presley and Gretzky.

Warhol’s art imitates news media in Jackie Frieze, which takes the private life of Jackie Kennedy and turns it into a product to be consumed by the public. Her suffering is not her own, it is on display. Warhol himself compared Jackie to The Virgin Mary.

A full room in the exhibit is dedicated to one of Warhol’s multimedia pieces. Exploding Plastic Inevitable has video and lighting projected onto all four walls and two spinning mirror balls. The room is transformed into something dizzying that must be seen to be understood. 

Warhol also painted a series featuring unnamed Black and Latinx drag queens and transgender women. The text on the wall beside these paintings considers the lack of agency the subjects were given; “it is important to think deeply about who tells the stories of members of marginalized communities and how those stories are shaped.” The most well-known of these paintings is gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson, but the majority of the subjects are not identified and little is known about their personal lives.

Themes of mortality became more prominent in Warhol’s work after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. The Stitched Photographs series depicts human bodies, some alive and nude, others in various states of decay. The repetition of images transforms the shapes of bodies into values of light and dark. They’re intimate photos which hauntingly juxtapose life and death. He did a series of prints of a photograph of an electric chair in an array of bright colours, they are morbid and unsettling, taking up a full wall of the exhibit. In Self Portrait Strangulation, Warhol looks like a silent film star, lips parted to indicate his shock at the predicament with a sense that he is aware of the camera. Warhol even painted the pistol Solanas used to shoot him.

The exhibit takes viewers through Warhol’s life and career as an artist and the pieces described here only scratch the surface of the exhibit. 

The Andy Warhol exhibit will be on display at the AGO until October 24. Art enthusiasts between the ages of 14 and 25 can acquire a free membership for the AGO which will allow access to exhibits like this one as well as the rest of the museum. For more information, you can visit their website by clicking here.