BEIJING – Across the ages, individuals standing at the peak of each society’s pyramid of power and fame have depended on artists to ensure their immortality: Khafre, pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, conscripted an army of artisans to carve his likeness into the Great Sphinx to preserve it through the eternal sands of time.
Forty-five centuries later, and half a world away, aristocrats of American pop culture began seeking out Andy Warhol to etch their images into eternity. Courting the artist at his Silver Factory in Manhattan, or at the nearby Studio 54 nightclub, they sought pharaoh-like fame without end.
But it was Warhol himself who selected which figures to transform into painted icons of an age, starting with a series of silk-screen portraits of star-crossed actress Marilyn Monroe and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
The artist’s quest to transmute ephemeral celebrity into painted immortality will be on view at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo starting Feb. 1 with the exhibition “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal.” The retrospective will feature 400 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs and films from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
The exhibition has been traveling across Asia, with stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, since early 2012. Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, says he selected the Mori Art Museum for the Japan section of the tour because “the Mori is the best museum in Tokyo.”
The Tokyo show is also an intercontinental cultural bridge between the U.S. and Japan, with experts from both museums crafting its contours for the past two years, says Shiner, who studied Japanese art at Osaka University and helped curate the Yokohama Triennale in 2001.
Warhol’s portraits of Kennedy, Shiner says, might attract the crowds in Tokyo “now that her daughter is the U.S. ambassador.” Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who studied art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London and then at Harvard, has been invited to the exhibition’s opening.
If Warhol were still around today, he would likely wish to recreate this ambassador’s image on the surface of a canvas. “Andy loved painting famous and powerful people, so he most definitely would have wanted to paint Caroline Kennedy,” Shiner says.
The artist liked to mix with and paint figures ranging from film star Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Caroline of Monaco to counterculture rebel Mick Jagger and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Sakamoto, a former member of the pioneering electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra and a fervent anti-nuclear activist, has also been invited to the show’s opening, says Kenichi Kondo, a curator at the Mori Museum.
The museum will stage a series of interactive talks — open to fans — through the exhibition’s close in May, with specialists covering topics like the spread of Warhol’s artworks around the world and the expansion of his influence on artists.
Kondo opens the first talk on the evening of Feb. 1, when he hosts a dialogue with a counterpart from the Warhol Museum on the pop artist’s popularity and the highlights of his works across a range of media. Other talks will feature art critics, art historians and possibly sociologists, printmakers and gallerists.
The massive Mori show will also include an elaborate simulation of Warhol’s Silver Factory, which was part studio, part “center for the underground culture scene of the time,” in a 120 sq. meter gallery at the museum, Kondo adds.
In March, Kondo will join Shiner, artist Tadanori Yokoo and Mori director Fumio Nanjo in a freewheeling talk covering Warhol’s artistic legacy in Japan.
Warhol’s style of painting has been studied by generations of Japanese artists, from Yokoo to “Takashi Murakami and the entire Superflat movement,” Shiner says.
Murakami’s work was featured in an exhibition co-organized by the Warhol Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012-13 covering Warhol’s worldwide influence on artists; he is inspired by an array of artistic genres — from ancient nihonga scroll paintings to contemporary anime and pop art — and heads the Superflat movement, which includes like-minded Japanese artists.
Nanjo says there are myriad parallels between Warhol and Murakami, who have both seen their artworks exhibited at leading museums across the continents. Both painters created an “art factory” to expand production and move into different media, mixed and meshed pop culture and high culture in their works, and collaborated with popular musicians to break through the boundaries that normally surround visual artists.
“I would also say that commonalities between Warhol and Murakami are: 1) The usage of bright colors in paintings/two-dimensional works; 2) the matter of depth/perspective is completely ignored; 3) anything could be the subject-matter of the artworks,” Nanjo adds.
Shiner, an admirer of contemporary Japanese art who has written extensively on the subject, says other Japanese artists who share some cultural connection with Warhol’s work are likely to be invited to exhibit at the Warhol Museum in the future.
Warhol developed sophisticated silk-screen printing techniques to transfer and reproduce photographic images that formed the foundation of many of his paintings. His series of Marilyn portraits originated with a publicity image that he printed onto a canvas and transformed with blocks of vibrant colors.
For some artworks, according to curators at the Warhol Museum, “Warhol appropriated — without permission — images from magazines, newspapers and press photos of the most popular people of his time.”
For one iconic blue-and-black painting of Jacqueline Kennedy produced in 1964, he started with a press photo taken on a Dallas boulevard in November 1963 of the first lady smiling from the back seat of a convertible, with just a fragment of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s profile behind her. “The close-cropped image here reproduces a moment shortly before any shots were fired,” researchers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote about the painting.
Meanwhile, Shiner says the artist was remarkably prescient on a wide array of trends and how they would evolve with time.
Warhol, who constantly photographed himself and the people around him, “presents a view of the self as something constructed through our relationship to the images that we create and celebrate,” Shiner says.
In that sense, he prefigured the entire Facebook generation.
Decades before the advent of YouTube, with its super-speed ability to rocket video makers into the global spotlight, Warhol forecast: “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
The title of the exhibition, “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal,” is a play on that prediction, Shiner says. He added that while “fame is fleeting, art is eternal.”
Both Warhol and his subjects recognized the whimsical nature of fame, and the ability of great artists to project an individual, an idea, an image, an icon into eternity.
He aimed to create a style of painting and an assembly of works that were so innovative they would be guaranteed a place in the art history books and museums of the future.
And besides etching his name, like the creators of the Egyptian pyramids, into every artwork, Warhol also tried to paint his own image into perpetual remembrance with a sequence of self-portraits.
Several of these looking-glass works are on display at the Mori Art Museum.
“Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” runs from Feb. 1 to May 6 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Admission is ¥1,300 in advance for adults. For more information, visit www.mori.art.museum.