The idea of an exhibition pairing two artists is far from new; but the Gagosian’s inspired juxtaposition of Richard Avedon’s photography with Andy Warhol’s screenprints creates a dynamic game of compare and contrast between two of the 20th century’s artistic pioneers.
Both artists were fundamentally concerned with portraiture, and worked to reinvent that genre in the newly liberated society of 1960s America. The austere spaces within Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery are divided roughly into a number of themes, from ‘social and political power’ and ‘celebrity’ through to ‘mortality’.
One is immediately reminded of just how innovative Warhol was. He continually experiments with combinations of silkscreen printing and paint – and other media (a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat is created from ‘acrylic, silkscreen ink and urine on canvas’). Cropping, doubling, colour are used to challenge conventional presentation and notions of gender and morality – as in ‘Walking Torso’ (1977) – devices that Avedon also employs in photographs of counterculture, celebrity or notorious figures.
Avedon expands the concept of portrait photography using scale – ‘The Family’ (1976) is a line-up of the movers and shakers of American culture and politics covering an entire wall, while ‘Andy Warhol and members of the Factory…’ (1969) is a life-size group portrait in three frames – and framing devices: a portrait of Francis Bacon (1979) depicts the artist twice, arbitrarily cropped.
Avedon often uses doubled images; Warhol responds with works that seem intentionally to play off the effects of photographic techniques (the silkscreen of ‘Keith Haring’ has the appearance of an enlarged negative image, exposed three times over). Neither creates ‘perfect’ images; Avedon’s photograph of Louis Armstrong is heavily blurred, capturing the musician in movement, mid-performance. Warhol layers paint, erasing subtle detail yet somehow saying a great deal more. Both capture the transience of glamour, the rapid rise and fall of celebrity, the age of consumerism.
The gallery on the theme of ‘mortality’ uses these same methods to approach ideas of aging and existence, violence and salvation with screenprints of a skull, a gun, ‘The Last Supper’; Avedon’s ‘Brandenburg Gate’ photographs of 1989 sit alongside. Simple, frontal self-portraits confront the dilemma which Avedon sums up so concisely: “Photographs … deny that we age at the same time as they chronicle our mortality.”