Halfway through meandering around the AGO’s highly-anticipated Andy Warhol exhibit, it’s Canadian ballerina Karen Kain that catches my daughter’s eye. “Ooh, this is my favourite. It’s colourful and sparkly!” My 10-year-old daughter aspires to be an artist but she’s still a little girl at heart and she knows what she likes. I’ve always told her that “art is never wrong”, especially when she gets too perfectionist and crumples up yet another masterpiece, but my saying applies in this case too. There’s a place for formal art criticism but also to just step back and appreciate the bright colours and glitter.
Before reality television faux-fame and the homemade stars of YouTube and TikTok, Andy Warhol brought Pop Art counterculture to the mainstream and made obsession with celebrity cool. Personalities of the 60’s (Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elvis Presley), 70’s (Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, The Velvet Underground) and 80’s (Dolly Parton, Wayne Gretzky, Debbie Harry) became instant superstars by being immortalized by Warhol.
In collaboration with the Tate Modern in London and Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, the Art Gallery of Ontario has reopened with a blockbuster exhibit four years in the making. It features some of Warhol’s best-known subjects and portraits, but what differentiates this particular collection is its focus on his personal influences: his struggling Eastern European immigrant family, health issues and homosexuality. (Note to parents: There is some male nudity, both in paintings and photography.)
The exhibit follows a basic chronology, beginning with Warhol’s early sketches and paintings where you can see what direction his work is soon going to take him. My daughter goes straight for a Picasso-influenced piece called “I Like To Dance” that shows stretched-out bodies. “I like the different colours, patterns and shapes.” We linger on the famous “Marilyn Diptych” to figure out where each individual Marilyn is slightly unique. She decides she likes the “pretty ones” best; I’m interested in the juxtaposition of light and dark, colour and lack thereof.
Some unexpected highlights are experimental installations: the mesmerizing “Silver Clouds”, where silver metallic pillows randomly fly around in a contained space, and “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, a multimedia disco-ballroom showing Warhol’s film clips backed by a soundtrack of The Velvet Underground.
Due to covid-related physical spacing needs, the collection takes up all of the gallery’s regular special exhibit space and then continues into a grand open room once used for large-scale sculptures. The high ceilings and wide open walls give a grouping of four colourful camouflage paintings and extra portraits some breathing room. In the middle of this room, there is a very personal surprise: three of Warhol’s blonde and grey wigs in a glass case. I ask my daughter what she thinks of the last self-portrait nearby: “He looks like Albert Einstein… and he looks crazy.” She’s joking, but it also makes him seem all the more human.
While you’re at the gallery, be sure to walk around the permanent galleries that are packed with gems of past and present. We always take the back elevator up and walk down the central winding stairs, designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry.
Admission to the AGO is always free for visitors aged 25 and under. Adult annual passes are only $35, making it an affordable and educational outing for families. Tickets to the Warhol exhibit are included with general admission, but separate timed tickets are required. Click here for more details.
Art Gallery of Ontario – Andy Warhol Exhibit
When: July 21 to October 24, Exhibit times vary.
Gallery hours: Tuesday & Thursday 10:30am – 5pm, Wednesday & Friday 10:30am – 9pm, Weekends 10:30am – 5:30pm
Where: Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West (between Beverley and McCaul)