Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol

The meaning or meaninglessness of Andy Warhol

Or #whyyoushouldnotputthingsoff

I have an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup plate. An ex bought me a book signed by Warhol (but got the money back from the EBayer because the book was signed after he died so it is either a fake or he signed it as a ghost). And in the postal system at the moment is a (hopefully) original page from the 1968 Moderna Museet Stockholm exhibition catalogue (his first in Europe).

So it would be a pretty safe bet to assume I was looking forward to this summer’s Warhol exhibition at the Tate Modern. It had been on my list since last May when my mum forwarded me an email about it.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol (1962) – Owned by the Tate ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )
Self Portrait by Andy Warhol
Self Portrait by Andy Warhol (1986) – Owned by the Tate ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )
Debbie Harry by Andy Warhol
Debbie Harry by Andy Warhol (1980) – From the private collection of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport 1961 – ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )

It opened on March 12 and I’d lined up friends to see it in April or May. I’d calculated the cost of the membership would have been worth it because I was sure I could fit in at least four or five visits over the summer.

But why was I putting it off? Why didn’t I see it the first week it opened?

Firstly, but not the most pressing reason: I don’t like galleries during the first few days nor when a show is soon to close. During these times hundreds of people crowd round each artwork but are more concerned with reading the words explaining the piece rather than forming their own opinion.

Secondly, and most importantly: I was worried there would not be anything new for me to see.

After all I’ve seen all the major retrospectives in the south of England since the late 90s, spent a very enjoyable day at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and I even took myself on my own tour of former Factory locations and his homes in New York City when I was last there. And when I lived in Washington DC I’d go to the Georgetown Frame Shoppe, just to look and wonder whether I’d ever be able to afford one.

The coronavirus lockdown put paid to my plan to see the Andy Warhol exhibition in April or May – Photo by Andrew Dunkley (Copyright Tate Photography)
Much of Andy Warhol’s art is concerned with the beauty within everyday household items like Brillo pads – Photo by Andrew Dunkley (Copyright Tate Photography)
Andy Warhol’s Lenin portraits highlight his fascination with the boundary between politics and celebrity – Photo by Andrew Dunkley (Copyright Tate Photography)

I got as far as contemplating emailing the Tate Modern to ask them to send me a PDF of the gallery guide (the usually paper booklet you get with your ticket – not the £25ish tome you can buy when you exit through the gift shop).

But then almost as quickly as the show opened, it has had to close again due to the coronavirus lockdown and there are obviously big question marks over whether it will be able to open again in any physical form before it is set to close on September 6.

I say in any physical form because it is available virtually courtesy of the Tate Modern. It’s obviously not as good as seeing it in person but, in these unsettled times, it’s the best we have got at the moment.

This virtual tour of the Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol exhibition is the best we’ve got at the moment

Instead of looking at the notions of celebrity and the American Dream like my American Studies dissertation (around the question of meaning or meaninglessness in 1960s America) did back in 2002, it looks at Warhol’s work through the themes of his immigrant story, queer identity, death and religion.

Hopefully you can get a sense of some of this in the paintings Tate Modern has very kindly let me use in this piece. But one thing you won’t be able to experience is the wonders of the silver clouds – floating in the air both as something which is graspable but also something ethereal and unobtainable.

I’m not sure how they were displaying the work at Tate Modern but when I saw Silver Clouds in Pittsburgh in 2001 (well worth a diversion off Route 76 to get there) you were able to play in the room like it would have been in his studio, the Factory, in the 60s (albeit without the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll)

Silver Clouds would have been one of my highlights of the Tate Modern exhibition
The Silver Clouds permit a sense of wonder and escapism – Photo by Andrew Dunkley (Copyright Tate Photography)

Now looking back at that day in Pittsburgh around 19 years ago and the events since then, and now with everyone facing an uncertain future, I think the Silver Clouds gain an even greater level of poignancy.

When you are in the room with them you can be free to play, free to release yourself from other worries, and are free to escape.

This freedom to escape within the everyday is why Andy Warhol is still my favourite artist. In unpacking what art could be during the immense politically and socially charged landscape of the States in the 1960s he democratised it and made it something everyone could relate to.

You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too.

A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

As he said in 1975 (in the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again)
Green Coca-Cola Bottles by Andy Warhol
Green Coca-Cola Bottles by Andy Warhol (1962) – Owned by Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchased with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 68.25 ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )
Sixty Last Suppers by Andy Warhol
Sixty Last Suppers by Andy Warhol (1986) – From the Nicola Erni Collection ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )
Boy with Flowers by Andy Warhol
Boy with Flowers by Andy Warhol (1955-7) – From the Artist Rooms Tate and National Galleries of Scotland ( © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London )

And by doing being something everyone could relate to, it was instantly very different to what the Abstract Impressionists had done before.


I often wonder how Andy Warhol would fit himself in to the increasingly digital world in which we live where everyone can be famous for 15 minutes (albeit probably not the world famous he supposedly said in 1968, but might not have done).

Would a series of selfies have replaced his screenprint portraits? Would he still eat a single variety of Campbell’s soup for lunch every day until the store ran out (ever possible in these days of coronavirus) and then change and wonder why he had spent so long eating the previous kind?

Would he have been a YouTuber or a TikTok star or both? We will never know.

The only thing we do know for sure is you will regret it if you put things off. Do today what you were planning to do tomorrow. Do them as soon as you can otherwise the place may close and you will be left with nothing but unrealised dreams.