Warhol rocks Asia: The pop art king's 15 minutes of fame are eternal

TOKYO - Andy Warhol has never been lost in translation. When it comes to the global market, especially Asia, he is revered both for his talent and his celebrity status.

"When Warhol was really becoming popular in Japan, consumer culture was just exploding there, like what China is today," said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "Warhol really enters into favor at that exact moment in time and I think it is because of his huge focus on consumer and celebrity culture."

Shiner spent six years working and studying in Japan and is fluent in the language. He recently led a Carnegie Museums group of 18 to see "Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal," a Warhol retrospective that has traveled across Asia for two years and recently closed at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum. The show, mounted by The Andy Warhol Museum, featured more than 500 of the artist's sculptures, paintings, photographs, movies and time capsules. It opened in Singapore in 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of Warhol's death with record-breaking attendance for a single exhibit. The show also traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

"'15 Minutes Eternal' was, by far, the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Warhol's work ever presented in China," noted Nicholas Chambers, the Milton Fine Curator of Arts at The Andy Warhol Museum. With the exception of Hong Kong, where it was the second-highest-attended exhibit, the other four cities all reported record-breaking numbers, with the Mori recording the most, at more than 275,000 visitors.

While in Japan, the Carnegie group also visited the studio of Tadanori Yokoo, an artist often called "the Japanese Warhol."

"My biggest interest in Warhol is his celebrity presence. His star quality has a pop-art quality to it," confessed Yokoo. "This actually makes his work and him somewhat undefinable." He suggests another reason the Japanese love Warhol: "His ambiguousness and Zen-like attitude."

"Andy is popular all over the world, and he made pop art what it is," said Bob Colacello, the author of the 1990 "Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up" and editor of Warhol's magazine Interview for over a decade. "I see his art as religious art for a secular culture."

His congregation continues to grow as the celebration of celebrity culture spreads unchecked via social media and the Internet, the vehicle that made prophetic Warhol's quip: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

During an auction at Christie's in Shanghai in May, an Asian telephone bidder paid 12 million yuan or approximately $1.92 million for Warhol's "Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm and Madonna." It was the highest price paid for a single work in that auction, according to Bloomberg News. Earlier this year, Sotheby's in London put the gavel down on $12.2 million for Warhol's silk-screen portrait of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Among the three top bidders was Sotheby's chairman of Asia, Patti Wong, who did not have the winning bid.

The Mao portrait is controversial in China and was not shown; however it was part of the Tokyo exhibit.

The Mori was one of many stops on the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Travel Program itinerary that incorporated visits to several artists' studios, museums, gardens, shrines and temples. Mori Art Museum director Nanjo Fumio confirmed that the show was the largest Warhol retrospective ever to be held in Japan. It commemorated the Mori's 10th anniversary.

One of the major attractions was Warhol's installation "Rain Machine" in the Warhol Cafe on the observation deck of the 52nd floor overlooking Tokyo. It was the first time it has been exhibited in Japan since it debuted at the 1970 Expo in Osaka.

Andy Warhol first visited Japan as a tourist in 1956. Its influence on him was immediate.

"To think that Japan was enemy No. 1 in his eyes and then going there 11 years after the war ended as a tourist and really loving it and doing these amazing sketches," Shiner said. "The use of gold leaf in his drawings appears immediately after his return after seeing Buddhist temples like the Golden Pavilion and gold Buddhas. For sure that is a direct influence right out of the chute."

But why does Warhol resonate with the Japanese? After World War II, the Japanese began modeling all things American, particularly the No. 1 commandment of capitalism — thou shalt consume.

"After World War II, Japan imported American popular and consumerist culture," said Yokoo. "The transformation to such extravagance and wealth was overwhelming, as Japan quickly became a materialist society. The Japanese were experiencing a cultured lifestyle for the first time ever. Streets were overflowing with consumer goods, and design benefited and became more sophisticated as the Japanese aesthetic appreciation changed and improved."

As the American consumer lifestyle was transplanted to Japan, it was Warhol's work that embodied it best with canonized celebrities and the dollar as deity. Like the Japanese, the Chinese are now experiencing the fruits of capitalism and have embraced consumerism with the same enthusiasm, adopting a reverence for what money can buy and the fame that often accompanies it. It's everything Warhol's work represents.

Like Yokoo, it's not just the work they admire, it's the man. As a society the Japanese are reserved and repressed. They believe the nail that stands up gets hammered down, so when someone becomes successful by standing out because they are quirky or nonconformist as Warhol was, that person is admired for their bravery. In some ways, they are in awe of how easily Americans express their individuality.

"Warhol is one of the fathers of contemporary art," said Kondo Kenichi, curator of "15 Minutes Eternal" at the Mori. "He caused a paradigm shift in terms of definition of 'fine art.' "

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