Friday, 20 February 2015

Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol, Modern Art, Oxford (6 December 2014-8 March 2015)

William Morris and Andy Warhol are two artists whose seemingly disparate aesthetics and artistic motivations do not readily draw comparisons, yet Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has sought to do exactly that in this very curious exhibition.  My first impression of the show was that it had the appearance of a visual manifestation of an art history dissertation – a clever set of propositions, expertly researched and argued but ultimately with which you do not have to agree.  Discovering that Deller has an MA in art history came as no great surprise.  That Warhol and Morris are two of Deller’s artistic heroes, even less so.
The usual white box galleries of Modern Art, Oxford have been bedecked with Morris wallpaper and assaults the eye upon entering.  Within these darkened walls, Deller firstly purports that parallels can be drawn between Morris’s love of mythology (particularly tales of King Arthur and Camelot) with Warhol’s obsession with celebrity.  To illustrate this the exhibition displayed the monumental The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle (1898-1896) opposite Warhol’s Marilyn Tapestry (1968) and Portrait: the Emergence of John F Kennedy (1961). 

The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and John Henry Dearle (1898-1896)
Marilyn, Andy Warhol (1963)
Similar pairings continue throughout the exhibition to illustrate Deller’s hypotheses.  He proposes that Warhol should be seen as a serious politically motivated artist and places, among others, Warhol’s prints of Mao (1973) over a vitrine containing Morris’s political pamphlets and writings.  Deller finally suggests that connections can be drawn between the two artists’ working practices and collaborations with other artists of their time, particularly with their printmaking activities.  He argues that comparisons can be drawn to Warhol’s activities at the Factory and the foundation of Morris & Co.  For me, this is where Deller’s argument completely fails.  Comparing a converted warehouse in New York used for predominately art-house happenings with a furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer, is just too tenuous. 
Morris & Co Workshops, London (c.1880s)
The Factory, New York (c. 1960s)
Overall, despite various visual links and assault, Deller’s comparisons of Morris and Warhol never really get off the ground.  Yes, they both believed in collaboration, both drew flowers, both can be linked to the theme of Camelot and both wrote prodigiously.  Sadly, none of these parallels really manage to convince.  Its swan song is comparing Morris’s floral designs for various wallpapers and soft furnishings with some Warhol screen prints which featured flowers in them, which only highlights further (if this were needed) at the huge gap in the skills level possessed between the two artists.
L:  Acanthus wallpaper design, Williams Morris(1879-1881) 
R:  Head with Flowers, Andy Warhol (1958)
L:  Hand Holding Glass with Daffodil, Andy Warhol (1957) 
R:  Kennet design for wallpaper, William Morris (1883)
Where this exhibition does succeed though is in bringing out from public and private collections works which have rarely been seen in the United Kingdom.  But it is works by Morris, such as the glass panel The Story of Tristram and Isoude, Panel 13, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot (1862) and Kennet, a design for wallpaper (1883).
The Story of Tristram and Isoude, Panel 13, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, William Morris (1862)
Jeremy Deller met Andy Warhol in 1986.  After an initial meeting at the artist’s room at The Ritz in New York, Warhol invited him to spend the summer at the Factory.  This led to a lifelong admiration of the artist and his work by Deller.  Apparently he grew up in a home filled with reproduction Morris wallpaper and soft furnishings which left an indelible imprint in the artist’s subconscious,  With Love Is Enough, Deller has been given the very enviable opportunity of putting on an exhibition featuring his art heroes.  I can only dream of the day when the exhibition "Dangerously Beautiful: Helen Chadwick and Meret Oppenheim" makes it out of my head and into a public gallery space.