Popular Mechanics

A new exhibition at Tate Modern shows how artists turned themselves into Pop stars.

Keith Haring branded himself and his work when he opened Pop Shop in New York in 1986.

Keith Haring branded himself and his work when he opened Pop Shop in New York in 1986.


The artist’s image has long permeated art itself. Portraits of Michelangelo and Rembrandt were famous in their day. In the 1960s and ’70s, Gilbert and George and Joseph Beuys made their personal appearances a medium—it is impossible to imagine the British duo without their suits, Beuys sans hat. But with the advent in the ’80s of turbo capitalism and the cult of celebrity, the public profile of certain figures underwent a change. Artists began to brand themselves and their work in ways previously reserved for Hollywood celebrities, rock stars, and fashion designers.

That is the thesis of Tate Modern’s big fall show, “Pop Life: Art in a Material World,” on view from the 1st of next month through January 17 and organized by Tate curator Catherine Wood, critic Jack Bankowsky, and François Pinault Collection chief curator Alison M. Gingeras. By the ’80s, notes Wood, Andy Warhol was marketing his own creative aura as if it were a perfume. Indeed Warhol became a franchise. People paid him to attend parties, and sometimes he would send Warhol doubles if he didn’t feel like going himself.

At the time, this was considered decadent and cynical. In retrospect it looks prescient. Self-branding was a coming wave. “Pop Life” takes late Warhol—the paparazzo and TV personality—as its starting point and continues with works and reconstructions spanning the last 25 years.

Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in New York’s SoHo is among the re-created spaces in the show. Before opening the store, in 1986, Haring discussed the project with Warhol. Andy advised him to go ahead, even though selling your work in a retail outlet was scarcely art-world etiquette. Newsweek, Haring once complained, published “that we were selling sheets and pillowcases, which we never did.” The items on sale were mainly T-shirts—wearable prints in Haring’s view. Pop Shop was maintained for 15 years after the artist’s death, closing in 2005.

British artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened a similar space in London’s Bethnal Green in the early ’90s (ephemera from their shop will be shown in a gallery dedicated to the Young British Artists). The two sold T-shirts inscribed “Complete Arseholes,” among other works, though not with the same panache as Haring. In his book Blimey! critic Matthew Collings describes stopping in to find both artists behind the counter, “all smiles. Tracey’s a bit strange and toothy.” The next time he came by there was a sign on the door: “Shop Closed, Gone to Mexico.”

For Emin, life and art are one. “Pop Life” will reassemble her first White Cube gallery show, from 1994, which gathered miniature versions of Emin’s art-school paintings and what Collings describes as “student-like memorabilia… diaries, old cigarette packets.”

Emin made her life public in the manner of a tabloid celebrity. Jeff Koons went a step further with “Made in Heaven,” shown in 1990 at the Venice Biennale. “Pop Life” reunites many of the works from the series: rococo kitsch paintings, photographs, and polychrome sculptures depicting the artist with his new Italian porn-star wife in various types of copulation.

Those images still look outrageous today but, like the rest of the show, also seem like products of a bygone era—one of excess that ended last September with Damien Hirst’s exhibition-sale at Sotheby’s London. It was a $200 million direct art-marketing venture that makes Haring’s shop look like a bijoux craft boutique. With historical symmetry, the sale began the day that Lehman Brothers’s collapse was announced.

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