The Barbican Centre’s photography show Masculinities, and Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol retrospective, are two large-scale London exhibitions that closed their doors to visitors in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, and reopened again in recent weeks. The Barbican exhibition is a show that reveals masculinity as something layered, and intrinsically fraught, through the mediums of photography and film. Each image is a document that explores the complexity and instability of identity politics; coded portraits and visual archetypes are dismantled and reconstructed, revealing elements of male identity that are dominant and aspects that are socially repressed. We begin to see how photography can narrate companionship, and isolation, preemptively visualising a time in which social relationships are increasingly digitised. The cluttered walls open up debates around relationships both political and familial, and in turn how the gendered image disperses power and status.
An exhibition on masculinity is, of course, tied to discussions of power that are prevalent and pervasive in contemporary discourse. The rhetoric of toxicity and fragility is impossible to ignore. Maleness becomes a central identity through which to visualise diverging ideas; nationalism, war, and violence. These issues are then complicated by intersecting meditations on queerness, fatherhood, and the female gaze. The oscillating focus on violence and intimacy is dizzying, and often simultaneous, while masculinity is revealed as something nebulous and indistinct. Rife with alternatives to the male ideal, as well as deconstructing the singularity of this vision, the exhibition embraces the contradictions within an overarching term, exposing all its discontinuities and discontents. Bas Jan Ader’s 1970 work I’m too sad to tell you performs misery, while drawing attention to the negative space of unspoken words. Karen Knorr’s photographic series Gentlemen aligns patriarchal portraits with the legitimising rhetoric in parliament that reinforces traditional values, exposing the political scaffolds of the conservative masculine image.
Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol exhibition carries a significant thematic resonance with that at the Barbican. It, like any other Warhol retrospective, grounds the work in the specificity of Warhol as a slippery and unknowable character, and how his depictions of others conversely become depictions of himself. It narrates his transition from a working-class upbringing to his pursuit of fashion illustration and the commercial world in New York. But the dichotomy of his desired life and his history is reinforced by the presence of his immigrant mother, a tangential but distinctive and fascinating figure. Following the threads of Julia Warhola provides a particularly fascinating and under-utilised insight into Warhol’s art. She is embedded into his work through her penmanship, and into his celebrity, through her photographed image, mimicking his artistic composure, or appearing distressed in a taxi when he was shot.
Warhol’s depictions of masculinity, performed in the public eye, are as self-contradictory as those in the Barbican exhibition. His early portraits of sleeping men are done with tender lines, but are soon overlaid by the garishness of pop, as the gaze becomes mechanistic. Figures like Elvis, depicted as a poised movie star, become emblematic of the 20th Century’s masculine ideal as mediated by mass media. Less overtly queer in terms of softness and compassion, but more queer in terms of embracing the spectacle of the New York art scene and commercial world, Warhol’s depictions of male bodies are rife with the tension between desire and vulnerability, immortality and fragility, gaudy life and certain death.
Warhol, in his character, embodies the friction of perception; to be highly visible in the public eye, yet subtle, slight, and unknowable. Displayed in a suitably oppressive narrow corridor alongside caged relics of his work and shooting, is a large photograph of wounds and surgical scars on his torso, taken by Richard Avedon. Antithetical to Warhol’s usual concealment of his vulnerable form behind the turtleneck and wig, this photograph provides a corporeal counterpart to the cool, sharp lines of commercial modernity that saturate the exhibition. Similarly, his repeated images can be viewed as an anxiety-fuelled impulse, as the imagery goes from being brash, colourful, and precise, to being faded and blurred. The motif of a factory that haunts his work becomes a way of industrialising this, concealing the compulsive and persistent imagery and the stifling flee from death behind a clean, mechanical facade.
Despite its £22 admission fee, the Warhol exhibition was broadcasted as part of a BBC Four programme, Museums in Quarantine. Critic Alastair Sooke playfully engages with Warhol’s 1965 conceptual piece Silver Clouds, one of Warhol’s more airy, engaging, and variable pieces, batting the floating metallic balloons that are currently stuck to the ceiling due to social distancing measures. This piece is deceptively combative, poking fun at the emerging minimalist movement that Warhol deliberately shaped his work to antagonise. With the pandemic, this interactivity is lost, and in this moment, the television exhibition becomes more tactile than the real one, and to visitors, the effervescence of pop remains out of reach.