Though I Want to Be a Machine features plenty of potent and important pieces by both Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and his Scottish contemporary Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), encountering Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ [no title] (1967) could well be the abiding memory of your visit. This 10-piece screen-print, in Room 2, is one of the most famous and powerful artworks of the twentieth-century, properly deserving the label ‘iconic’, and it’s quite a privilege to view it here, in Edinburgh.
The exhibition’s title, ‘I Want to Be a Machine’, is acting possibly as a unifying take on two quite different artists who, despite sharing the ‘pop art’ tag, had divergent career arcs. There’s as much to distinguish them as there is to unify, and that tension persists throughout the exhibition, with the ‘machine’ a recurring motif, aesthetically and in technique. This makes for an oddly paradoxical engagement for the visitor – who at one point might spot interesting similarities, say in the adoption of mechanical printing methods and immersion in twentieth-century mass consumption, and at another might wonder, why to show the two of them in the same exhibition at all. Warhol, for instance, shared little of Paolozzi’s aesthetic interest in mechanical brutalism, who conversely was seemingly unmoved by the cult of celebrity which evidently meant so much to Warhol.
Both artists’ early careers are given plenty of room-space, worth investigating to better understand their trajectories. We see Warhol developing his ink-transfer and tracing techniques at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in his native Pittsburgh (where he studied Pictorial Design) and, gaining design commissions on moving to New York, developing a fascination for repeated images, photography, mechanical processes and symbolism, influenced by older European artists such as Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The intricacy of the line-work in pieces such as Six Handbags (1958) is striking. And Leith-born Paolozzi, having lost many of his family in the second world war, studied at Edinburgh College of Art and took to collage, based on the colourful imagery of comics and American consumer magazines. We learn that, travelling to Paris in 1947, he met modern art luminaries such as Fernand Léger, Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti, and, heavily influenced by Amédée Ozenfant’s book The Foundations of Modern Art, developed a man-machine aesthetic that nodded to ancient classical sculpture, brutal military technology and a hi-tech future, reflected plentifully in sculptures such as Mr Cruickshank (1950/59) and St Sebastian I (1957).
Paolozzi evolved not only his mechanistic sculptural language but in a significant speech at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, helped to lay the foundations of British pop art by propounding a new aesthetic based on the mass-consumption, automobiles and atomic age futurism that characterised modern American culture. He would take this further in producing his distinctive sculptures – mechanistic but often incorporating jagged organic lines, the two elements in almost uncomfortable juxtaposition in his His Majesty The Wheel (1958-59) or the print Automobile Head (1954/62).
How Warhol became so absorbed by the New York glitterati is less closely examined: his first ‘Factory’ studio – a mechanical term – established in 1963, became a centre for the city’s art milieu, where he fostered the idea of artist as overseeing producer or manufacturer, thus giving shape to his comment in a 1965 interview: ‘I want to be a machine’. A room is given over to posters for the non-narrative films he directed – eg. Bad, Trash, etc. These served to further challenge the conventional role of the artist and compounded the reputation he cultivated as a detached provocateur). Less weight is given to his key 1960’s musical and multimedia projects (for instance producing and self-branding the Velvet Underground’s eponymous first record or his Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance event), but this is hardly remiss considering the understandable constraints of a two-artist exhibition. Paolozzi’s work is rightly given equal weight, and the reconstruction of his studio, with its dizzying clutter of miscellaneous objects and maquettes of sculptures in progress, is a permanent reminder of his restless appetite for collecting what might appear to others as junk. Further treats are his sets of prints As Is When [1965) and ZEEP [Zero Energy Experiment Pile) (1970) – showing his visual language approaching a strong maturity.
It’s an exhibition awarded the wide and detailed curatorial scope you would expect from the National Galleries: with both men working energetically up until their deaths, there’s a great volume of material to view, and close examination would justly warrant a good portion of the visitor’s day. A short visit nonetheless would still reward plentifully, if only to wonder at the power of, say, Paolozzi’s menacing robotic sculptures such as The Bishop of Kuban (1962), or Warhol’s screen-printed Black Bean Campbell’s soup can (1968) among works that not only have rightfully made their way into the 20th-Century canon, but decidedly contributed to shaping it.