The Great American pop artist Andy Warhol died on Feb 22, 1987. Not only was he an incredibly talented artist, he was the master of the unexpected and had some absolutely brilliant and witty quotes. Here are some of his gems as this week’s Sunday Seven:
People should fall in love with their eyes closed.
Don’t pay attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.
I just do art because I’m ugly and there’s nothing else for me to do.
The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will.
In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.
I never fall apart, because I never fall together.
As soon as you stop wanting something you get it.
It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are.
The 1980s seems like a special time – it was the decade of Queen, Band-Aid, the rise of graffiti art, and of course the decade capped itself off with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin was like a small island in the middle of an ocean – except the ocean was the German Democratic Republic (DDR), and every road on this isolated island led to the wall. The wall which encircled them, also provided the rebellious youth with a massive, blank canvas. And on this canvas, they recorded their thoughts, likes, dislikes, ideas, in the form of written word and art. It was as though a dam suddenly burst in the 80s and an entire generation filled the wall with their musings; all the while defiantly defiling the property of the DDR whose brutal police marched inches away.
These youth were not unaware of the police marching inches away on the other side of the wall, nor were they unaware that the DDR police would not hesitate for one second to shoot at them. It was this fear, this thrill, this defiant attitude of using the wall as a canvas, or a community notepad, that gives rise to the raw energy that emanates from the graffiti on the walls. I found this raw energy lacking in the section of the wall that can be seen in the East Side Galley in Berlin. While it has amazing and meaningful art and murals done by artists from all over the world, for me, it lacks the heart and the passion seen in the graffiti from the 80s. It lacks the urgency of the graffiti from the 80s, and graffiti without urgency and youthful defiance is just art that grew up and became something your parents can buy at a gallery to frame and hang on newly painted walls.
I spend hours with the images of Berlin Wall graffiti that I find online. I zoom into the images, read the messages, and find connections. One prominent writing in red says “27.86 HHS of Moorburg,” which is a neighborhood in Hamburg, West Germany. Below that in black, “FACIST PROTECTION WALL,” and to the left, a black heart with the words, “From Russia With Love.” The black and white image has the words, “Realitat,” which is the German word for facing facts. A German fan pays homage to a favorite band – Raga Rockers 83 – a Norwegian band that recorded their first album in 1983. In Italian a “Viva Librealismus,” while a German “Mu̇ll” – which suggests tothrow something in the trash – quite apt for what most Berliners wanted to do with the wall. There’s a rocket with the word USSR on it, and what seems to be Reagan 60 written next to it. To the right, what I’m sure was a powerful antiwar sentiment – unfortunately the tree is covering some of the letters.
Another section of the wall says, “C’est l’historie d’un mur tombant. Mais l’important, c’est pas la chute. C’est l’atterrissage,” meaning, “this is the story of the falling wall. What is important is not the fall. It is the landing.” The quote is from French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La haine, which of course means this is an image from after the wall fell – regardless, I think it’s a great quote about the unification of Germany.
An artist boldly writes, “Take a walk, On the Wall,” and below that another writes, “Graffiti is like a drug.” At the bottom of the wall one sentence reads, “There is only one reason for art….to keep that” and sadly I can’t make out what the rest of it says.
Each one of these remained for probably less than a day; the next day someone else would come along and paint over it to or write directly over it. Some were captured in images for posterity, while most were erased even before, as they say, the proverbial ink dried. Yet, these images show us what made Berliners tick in the 1980, what they thought about, how they related to and lived with the wall. These images have captured real, honest, unrehearsed snippets of moments in time before the wall fell, and that’s why they fascinate me to no end. (All images courtesy Massimiliano T.P. Instagram).
This summer, I participated in a New York Times Reading contest which involved reading an article and writing a personal reflection to the article. The article I wrote about is by Alex Vadukul, “How Big Mike, a Barbershop painter, Broke into the Art World.” Mike Saviello works at a barber shop and during his lunch break he paints. Here is my reflection on this article:
If you scroll past all the stories of immigrants, dreamers, migrant crisis, political debates, you will come to this truly heartwarming story of Mike Saveillo, a barber from New York who has become a sought after artist. This too is a story about America: about the opportunities that still exist, about simple working class people, about cities like New York with long lasting barbershops, about wives who get cancer and husbands who get shattered, about barbers who dare to dream and use bold colors and have art showings at big name galleries – all of this is possible because Mike Saveillo lives in America.
There is a Mike in most people. People often give up on something they are passionate about because it is the practical, sensible thing to do. We stop playing the cello because it interferes with math tutoring, we give up singing for science fairs. Mike gave up art for football, and then a well-paying job so he could support his family. But his passion for art never left him, and in the end he found a way to paint. That’s why I liked this story so much. Because in the end, Mike found a way to do something he had always wanted to do since he was a child, and because he lives in a country where he could dare to dream, and to be, in the words of his wife, “a disrupter.”
Dresden is almost too beautiful to be real. When the late afternoon sun shines on its churches and palaces, it almost takes your breath away. The Frauenkirche (Lutheran Church) sits in the middle of the old town center like a beautifully iced cake on a platter; just one of the many baroque architectural gems in this town which, until 1989, was part of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city was completely devastated by Allied bombings in 1945, practically every building was demolished. For 45 years after that, Dresden and its old town lay in ruins. Mountains of rubbles lay everywhere, untouched by the communist government, as a propaganda about the devastation of capitalist warfare.
The GDR constructed numerous buildings around the old town, punctuating the once baroque town with low and wide glass and concrete buildings that are quintessential socialist and communist architecture. The Kulturpalast (Palace of culture, 1962) at the edge of the reborn old town is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order. One side of the building is decorated with a striking mural called “The Way of the Red Flag,” adding color, albeit a symbolic red, to an otherwise grey concrete exterior.
The long narrow mural, is approximately 95 feet high and 325 feet wide, and tells the history of socialism. Almost to the center stands its most striking feature, a woman with a scarf typical of the socialist working class, her left hand stretched out in a welcoming gesture, while her right hand holds a red flag. The raised flag leads the eye toward the hammer and sickle symbol of the GDR. The story starts on the left half of the mural where Karl Marx (with a document in his hands) can be seen standing with Freidrich Engels. Below them a group of three men arm themselves in protest, and to the right we see the Red Star a sign of the Russian revolution of 1914. World War II, and its suffering, is depicted to the right of the flag bearer. The victory of socialism is seen in the depiction of groups of men of various professions, some holding guns while others raise their right fists. All seem to be looking towards the central figure of Walter Ulbricht the communist leader of GDR.
I discovered the mural almost by accident and stood in front of it for a long time, marveling at it, and shocked both by its existence and its contrast with the baroque architecture of Dresden’s old town. The fact that the Kulturpalast and the mural exist to this day, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a testament to the people of Dresden. The people of this Dresden have rebuilt their town back to its former Baroque glory from the debris that remained after World War II. Their love for art and architecture is evident from the fact that despite the passage of time, almost 40 years passed before communism fell, they started rebuilding brick by broken brick as soon as they could after reunification . It is only a city that has suffered and lost so much that will not be quick to tear down art, even if it is communist art. And we, the visitors, leave Dresden enriched, by both the people and the art and architecture of this beautiful city.
It fell with almost the same speed and surprise as it had risen 28 years earlier. From the evening of August 13, 1961 to the evening of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, effectively cutting it off from East Germany which surrounded it on all sides. The wall was a physical barrier that cut through a city dividing friends, neighbors, and family, but more importantly it was an ideological barrier between capitalism and communism, and a powerful symbol of the Cold War.
This summer, I traveled to Germany, a country I have wanted to visit since I first read about the Berlin Wall in world history. The wall was constructed almost overnight on the night of August 13, 1961 by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) communist government. The wall was called “Antifascistischer Schutzwall” by the GDR government who claimed that the primary purpose of the wall was to keep the West German fascists, who wanted to undermine the socialist regime of the east, out of East Berlin. In reality though, the wall was built to stop the mass defections that were occurring daily with people leaving East Berlin for the west. The GDR government was concerned about their dwindling population and the impact it would have on the East German economy.
With the slow demise of communism in parts of Eastern Europe, the GDR government too, in a most unexpected and unplanned way relaxed the barrier and on November 9, 1989 announced that “effective immediately” East Berliners would be allowed to travel to the West. The euphoria that followed this unexpected announcement was such that people started to climb the wall and started chipping away at it the same night. Within a couple of days, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, started to address the issue of “German Reunification,” thus putting events into motion that have eventually led to the Berlin of today – a city that seems to be bursting with life; still celebrating reunification.
While most of the wall is gone for good, an almost 1.5-mile-long section of the wall remains standing along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain section of Berlin. This longest intact section of the original 90-mile-long wall has become the world’s largest outdoor museum of sorts. The 105 sections of the wall have been painted by artists from all over the world, each one a unique showcase providing its own commentary on the wall, its fall and freedom.
Unlike the graffiti artist of the 1980s, these artists painted by invitation and had no fear of getting shot by the East German guards patrolling the wall. So while the East Berlin Gallery is an incredible piece of art that celebrates freedom and humanity, it does not have the intensity and rawness of the street art that covered the wall prior to 1989. The first artist to paint the wall was French artist Thierry Noir, who lived along the wall and painted sections of it with incredible street art almost on a daily basis. The amazing gallery that stands today is because of pioneer street artists like Thierry Noir who by painting the wall attempted to psychologically destroy it.
The glorification and elevation of a soup tin to high art could only happen in a country that was the birthplace of democracy and considers the pursuit of happiness a national pastime. The generation that grew up in war time was clearly going to be different from previous generations, and this was evident in almost every aspect of their lives. There was a sense of impermanence, and the desire to enjoy life for the moment. When the children of the people who fought in the war became adults, they lived life on their own terms; changed their hairstyles, shortened their dresses, removed hats and collars, listened to music that was definitely not their parents’ music, and freed art from the shackles of fine art and refinement.
In their adulthood, by the late 1950s, America was a place of affluence and material wealth. Families purchased new age gadgets like automobiles and televisions, moved to the suburbs, and lived a consumerist life. Capitalism in society also inspired the art movement known as Pop Art which started in the late 1950s and lasted until the 1970s. The movement was mainly limited to the United States and Britain, and its most defining feature was that it took art lightly and turned to mainstream media and culture for inspiration.
The art world’s immediate reaction to World War II was to turn inward to an art movement that eventually came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. By 1960s, the artists who grew up with and learned their trade from the abstract expressionists were ready for a change. And since no conventional realism would do, the answer came in the form of Pop Art – this happy medium of abstract and realism, which is both and neither at the same time, was coined “Pop Art,” by British art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1951 referring to the pop culture of the era.
Pop Art was a product of its times. By the 1960s, the US was a consumer goods society with mass media extensively promoting material goods to a society looking to increase its material possessions. Pop Art looked towards the graphics and images from advertisements and other forms of mass media for inspiration. Mass media had already perfected images to sell products to the American public and Pop Art elevated these images further by putting by elevating them to an art form; what art critic described aptly as gilding an already gilded lily. In the UK too, a public tired of war rations and shortages wanted to reap the material benefits and affluence so seductively presented in American films and magazines.
Among contemporary art movements, Pop Art, with its bold, bright colors, is one of the most instantly recognizable styles of art. Pop Art blurred the distinction between fine art and commercial art by turning to banal, everyday items for inspiration. This art movement captured everyday items such as ice cream cones, soup cans, billboards, and comic strips and recorded a moment in time of American life. Pop art presents realistic images of these items, but not in the conventional sense; the enormous sizes, though not unrecognizable, are sufficiently transformed by the artist to be no longer realistic.
The revolutionary group of artists who worked in Pop Art were not only rebelling against the status quo in the art world, they were also affirming the post-war capitalist boom in America. Similar to previous generations of artists who recorded the ever changing contours of the great American outdoors, the avant-garde group of pop artists sought to capture the transient nature of the subject matter they painted. Among the most well-known were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, and Robert Indiana. British pop artists, who were influenced by American culture from a distance, included Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Peter Blake.
In my next blog I’ll write about three of these artists, their works, and some concluding remarks about this art movement.