As ever with Warhol, where the art meets the legend is where things get really interesting. Take the screenprinted 1972 portrait of Richard Nixon, for example, a typically Warholian study of the photographed figure emblazoned with overlaid colour and an exaggerated, neon-piped outline. In this instance, Warhol chose to give the then-President a ghastly blue skin pallor, matching disconcertingly infernal orange eyes with a showman-pink jacket. Most pointedly of all, the hand-scrawled legend underneath reads “Vote McGovern”.
Apparently the intention was to innocently indicate the stark fluidity and dynamism of the electoral dichotomy, but Warhol would later, we are told, and from then on find his taxes audited, although no documentary evidence exists to place the artist on one of Nixon’s infamous “enemies” lists. It sums up a thread revealed by this first exhibition of Warhol’s work in a Parliament building anywhere in the world, that even as his reputation drew him into the orbit of real power, his relationship with it was characterised by a combination of impudence, cynicism and respectful naiveté.
Presented as a collaborative effort between the Scottish Parliament, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie UK Trust (the large portrait of Carnegie taking pride of place is making its UK debut), the exhibition gathers an interesting and freshly-curated cross-section of Warhol’s supposedly political work together. There are portraits in similar format to that of Nixon, including former West German chancellor Willy Brandt in a cigarette holder-flaunting, strangely movie star-like pose, and a 1976 diptych of Jimmy Carter commissioned by the Democratic National Committee to take his image to young voters, which leaves the eventual President looking iconically tense and pensive. From 1985 comes the bright and respectful Reigning Queens triptych, featuring the female monarchs of the Netherlands, Swaziland and the UK, while a late-period and typically multiple image of Lenin is contextualised as a homage to a fellow assassination attempt survivor.
Although there’s a rich variety of style here, Warhol’s attempts to tackle a subject directly – see his posters in support of endangered species campaigns or Joseph Beuys’ German Greens – aren’t as enthralling as the points at which he hangs back and observes it from a voyeuristic distance. See, for example, the iconoclastic pop recreations of the US dollar sign and the Russian hammer and sickle, his mock boxes of tinned soup and fruit passing judgement on art as capitalism, and the haunting Flash-November 22 series of manipulated images and teleprinter copy reports from the Kennedy assassination, restaging the event as a cinematic storyboard or a glossy magazine shoot.