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Warhol at AGO: Image Obsession before Instagram

Warhol at AGO: Image Obsession before Instagram

Three days before the province announced all day Go train service to the West Harbour Go station, I took the “ghost” train to Toronto to see the Andy Warhol show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

  I was early for the 7:15 a.m. departure, one of just two trains leaving the station that day. It gave me time to chat with the personable Go Transit staff at the platform. One commented that all train service from Aldershot to Niagara was “on hold.”

  So the bombshell announcement just three days later of an increase from two to 18 departures a day was a well guarded secret

   As we waited for about five people to eventually  board, the Go Transit workers told me about the business of riding trains during Covid.  Homeless people for instance would ride the train back and forth from end to end on the line, during the time that it was free to travel on Go. Parents too, would take their little kids on mini train rides to get them out of the house during endless periods isolation.

  Arriving at Union Station, there was no hint of the frantic commuter activity of pre-Covid times. I walked to the AGO via a long stretch of Queen Street West, which had the same beat up, ramshackle vibe of many streets in downtown Hamilton now. There were vacant store fronts, trash skittering in the wind, and evidence everywhere of individual businesses being swatted away by retail chains and condo construction.

Warhol show a capsule of celebrity culture

  The Warhol exhibition struck me as particularly apt as I watched masked patrons meandering between his works.  Warhol was known as a germaphobe, so this new era of masking, washing and distancing could have been logical for him to embrace.

  And the work-the commercialism, the cult of celebrity, worship of beauty, it was Warhol’s world starting in the 1960’s, and it still has a stranglehold on society today.

  With curated commentary, the AGO strives to reveal the Warhol behind the slick, rather distant works on display. They tell the story of a shy, gay man, an immigrant who grew up poor, and a man dissatisfied with his looks. 

One of many screen prints of Marilyn Munroe © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ SOCAN.

    The vibrant beauties of his era, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones, Jackie O, are all well represented. But beyond the neon colours, and perfect faces of celebrity, Warhol sought the dark places. His photographic work tells the story of people struggling on the streets of New York, or of the fear captured in his America’s Most Wanted series of murderous mugshots.

Street scene captured by Andy Warhol and sewn together in a grid.

Immigrant experience imprinted on Warhol

  Those Campbell Soup cans, brightly arranged in the grid pattern Warhol loved-their success helped fund Warhols experimental work. Long before the Kardashians smothered the airwaves with their vapid lives, Warhol put his own celebrity on display through experimental movies, photographs, and paintings.  

Growing up, Warhol ate “soup” made of watered down ketchup and salt. Campbell’s Soup, mass produced and packaged in cheery graphics represented the allure of consumer culture.

  The AGO does not spend much time on the dark side of Warhol’s studio scene at The Factory. Like many celebrities, he attracted a swarm of hangers on, and some were consumed by the elusive promise of something exciting and better.

  Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, I think Warhol may have embraced them all. Waiting for the train at Union Station to return home I watched a young woman take endless selfies and post them to the universe.

  Warhol could say, “Been there, done that.”

For more on the Warhol show at the AGO click here.

For more stories by Kathy Renwald

Full day Go Service for West Harbour Go

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