in the Fantasy America, a new exhibition at Warhol, five interdisciplinary artists offer a complex picture of American life that is inextricably linked to this turbulent moment of political upheaval and social reckoning. Here José Carlos Diaz, chief curator at The Warhol, discusses how Warhol’s book from 1985, Americainspired the exhibition and how the work of these contemporary artists evolves the theme of the exhibition. The exhibition runs until August 30, 2021.
Michelle Johnson: The first line of Andy Warhol’s 1985 book with photographs and commentary, Americareads, “Everyone has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see it.” How did this book trigger the current exhibition at Warhol?
José Carlos Diaz: The first passage of this book was the seed for the show. In the full description, Warhol describes growing up in Pennsylvania and imagining what the rest of the country looks like based on what you think it might be. The rest of the book contains more text, but also features extensive photos from the last decade of Warhol’s life. Much of it looks and feels like the book was out in 2020. I wanted to explore ideas about America, but with living artists and their practice.
Johnson: Fantasy America is an exhibition on contemporary issues of social justice. When I remember my visit to The Warhol or other Warhol exhibits, the first thing that comes to mind is pictures of celebrities. Other people probably think of soup cans. I went to Zoom yesterday with a lawyer who has skateboards with Warhol pictures in his office. How do we get from Warhol to Black Lives Matter?
Diaz: Warhol showed current events as well as contemporary life. In addition to cans of soup, check out his depictions of suicides, the atomic bomb, the murder of JFK, civil rights protesters attacked by police dogs, and the death penalty through his series of electric chairs, for example. This new exhibition is about contemporary life today and the artists in the exhibition respond to their lived experience, not Warhol’s.
Warhol showed current events as well as contemporary life.
Johnson: There are five contemporary artists in Fantasy America. How does each of your works develop the theme of the exhibition?
Diaz: Nona Faustine encounters modern injustices through photography that focuses on public monuments and town houses that relate to hidden African American stories. Kambui Olujimi deals with the nationality and the colonization of bodies, land, time and space and emerges in buried political pasts. Pacifico Silano collages vintage magazines for gay men to explore love and loss in queer culture and community. Naama Tsabar uses her body and sound compositions to perform outside the boundaries of gender norms with a range of female and gender-specific collaborators. Chloe Wise deconstructs advertising and audiences through staged narratives to reveal carefully crafted social contracts and constructs.
Johnson: Nona Faustines No longer to praise famous men is from a series my country, interviewing iconic American monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. in the AmericaWarhol writes of DC tourists’ pride in encountering Lincoln’s statue or the Vietnam Memorial: “And their minds turn around and they realize the size of their country and how proud they are to live there.” Is Warhol’s statement a little cheeky? Does Faustine’s art also comment on who is excluded from this answer?
Diaz: I think Warhol was proud to be American and I know Faustine is too. Both had ancestors who came to the US from elsewhere. Warhol was a bit of a chameleon when it came to taking sides on issues, but both artists show places that are very much part of our collective conscience. The past is often mythologized and institutionalized, so in some ways we think about Christopher Columbus or the Statue of Liberty, but it often erases additional stories from other cultures. Faustine discovers the invisible by creating her visual barriers in red and black lines that symbolize these lost narratives and can separate the place and the viewer.
Johnson: Chloe Wise’s deconstruction of the advertising Warhol was involved in seems explicitly Warhol-esque.
Diaz: Absolutely. Wise is well aware of the seduction behind advertising. Warhol was a commercial illustrator in the 1950s, making drawings for advertisements selling shoes, cars, jewelry, etc. He had to make it appealing, then he would take what he had learned and use it in his pop productions in the 1960s and beyond.
Johnson: in the AmericaWarhol writes about how cable and satellite dishes have stolen the secret from the rest of the world. Warhol died two years later and never really experienced the internet. What do you think Warhol would have made of Instagram, TikTok?
Diaz: He would surely be involved in many ways!