Asia Life

Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal Comes to China

An exhibition of American artist Andy Warhol is coming to China. Organizer Eric Shiner is thrilled.

Jonathan DeHart

Now that its stint in Hong Kong has come to an end, the next stops for the traveling exhibition Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal will be Shanghai and Beijing—sans the vividly colored portraits of Mao Zedong.

Warhol was inspired to paint the iconic portraits of the Chairman after United States President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972. So high is the demand for Warhol’s work in Asia today that in 2010, an anonymous Hong Kong buyer purchased a Mao portrait for more than $850,000, the Wall Street Journal reported. The report added that Hong Kong art collector Joseph Lau went further, dropping $17.4 million at a 2006 auction in New York for one portrait of the founder of the People’s Republic.

Despite the omissions of these iconic portraits in the upcoming exhibition – which Bloomberg reported were rejected by China’s Ministry of Culture – the event’s organizer Eric Shiner sees the retrospective as highly relevant for China.

“Warhol is ever-present in Chinese contemporary art,” Shiner, director of the Pittsburgh-based Andy Warhol Museum and one of the event’s organizers, told The Diplomat. “His pop sensibility, color palate, sense of humor and cultural critique have been huge sources of inspiration for Chinese artists from Ai Wei Wei and Xu Bing to Yue Minjun and many others.”

In 1981 Ai Wei Wei swam against the current of Chinese artists making their way to Europe, instead basing himself in New York City “specifically to be in Warhol’s sphere,” Shiner said. “Whereas most Chinese dissident artists moved to Paris or Berlin, Wei Wei moved to Warhol’s world so as to further absorb the Warholian aesthetic.”

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3_Andy_Warhol_Jackie_1964_300dpiThe extent of Warhol’s influence on the controversial Chinese artist is seen in a famous photo of Ai Wei Wei standing next to Warhol’s Self-Portrait (1966) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), imitating his artistic hero’s pose. For Shiner, the photo “sets the stage for Wei Wei’s own forays into the examination of popular culture, cultural hegemony, consumerism, repetition and cultural critique that fully align him with Warhol.”

Shiner continued, “I have had direct conversations with these artists who immediately credit Warhol for aiding them in the development of their work and their voice, and when one thinks about Chinese pop art of the past decade, one must realize that it could not have happened without Warhol as a most-important sounding post.”

But the influence did not travel only in one direction. Warhol was a lover of Asia himself and was deeply indebted to China for some of his own creative inspiration. During his own voyage around the world in 1956, the artist stopped in Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand, though he could not make it to the Mainland.

“Warhol was a huge fan of China on a number of levels,” Shiner said. “He absolutely adored Asian aesthetics and fell in love with gold leaf, something found in most Asian art histories. He quickly incorporated gold leaf into his drawings and commercial work upon his return.”

At the upcoming exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing, some 300 of Warhol’s paintings, photographs, screen prints, drawings and sculptures of pop culture relics on show include his portraits of Jackie (1964), Marilyn Monroe (1967) and Campbell’s Soup (1961). In other words, even without Mao (1972), the exhibition will make a mark.

“I hope that it (the exhibition) will further unleash the deeply creative souls of all Chinese contemporary artists,” Shiner said. “I’m very excited to see what comes of it.”