THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Silver Clouds: Playing with God?

 

Lawrence & Clark hosted the Silver Clouds installation by Andy Warhol during November and December of 2019. First shown at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1966, Warhol’s famous installation has been on view all over the world almost continuously since its inception. It was last seen in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” exhibition in 2017. I was told that the Art Institute of Chicago declined to show it in conjunction with its Warhol retrospective, “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” partly because of security concerns. But Jason Pickleman, Lawrence & Clark’s gallerist, got permission from the Warhol Foundation to mount it in his gallery.

The rectangular mylar balloons, which are filled with a special helium/air mixture, float whimsically in L&C’s small space. The tight quarters make the experience all the more immersive. There is no way to be in the space with the 25 balloons without physically encountering them, prodding them to go ceiling bound, hugging them, sending them wafting across the room, or just gently pushing them out of your way. Adults as well as children love playing with them and putting them into motion.

Warhol first created the clouds in collaboration with engineer Billy Klüver. They are made of what was then a new material, metalized polyester film, which we now call mylar. And they were to be part of Warhol’s exit from painting to other media, such as film. However, while he engaged with those other forms for the remainder of his career, he eventually returned to painting in the 1970s with portraits of the rich and famous.

What makes Silver Clouds stand out in Warhol’s body of work is that it is less susceptible to the commercialization and brand frenzy that engulf his paintings and silkscreens. You can’t go out and buy one. (Of course, you can go online and buy an “art print” of a photo of the original installation for less than $20.) It is an immersive installation that is dependent on an audience, so it is unsuitable for a private collection. Yet it may be the longest lasting installation in modern art history. One could even say that Silver Clouds is famous as a work of art and not as a brand icon. And it lacks the anti-consumerist tone that critics associate with much of his work. One must remember that the Warhol paintings and prints that we see in museums are as much a product of Leo Castelli’s marketing expertise as Warhol’s conceptual and artistic talent.

But there is another side to Silver Clouds. Warhol was a devout Catholic, and clouds have a number of symbolic meanings within Christianity and Judaism, where clouds can be positive or negative omens. They can be the symbol of divine presence. They can represent something that is transitory. Or they can be a symbol of concealment.

All of these meanings can be applied to Silver Clouds. After all, artistic inspiration is often equated with divine inspiration. That is not to say that Warhol thought that he was inspired by God. But it could suggest that the idea for Silver Clouds came from non-commercial and more spiritual sources.

Silver Clouds is certainly transitory in nature. It is always changing and never the same. One day it is cold, and the clouds initially hug the floor; a door is opened, and a draft sets the clouds in motion; someone walks through them and pushes some of them to another part of the room. Even the site of the installation is transitory. The installation has been shown all over the world for more than 50 years. It has been shown in Chicago at least three times, all in different locations.

The clouds are opaque and highly reflective. When they cluster in an area, they can conceal what is there, if anything; parting due to a draft or being pushed, they reveal a doorway or entrance to another part of the space, bringing to mind an allegory of clouds parting to reveal the face of God. Their reflectivity makes them like funhouse mirrors. You see your reflection in the clouds, a distorted one to be sure, perhaps making you reflect on your actual reality.

Warhol made a whole body of overtly religious works, the subject of “Andy Warhol: Revelation,” an exhibition currently on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh until February 16, 2020. The pieces in that show deal directly with Catholicism and Warhol’s complicated relationship with the Catholic church— exacerbated by his homosexuality.

Silver Clouds is not part of that body of work. Its religious content is subliminal and metaphorical. Nevertheless, the spiritual content makes itself felt after you spend some time with the installation.

An article by Adelaide Mena on the Catholic News Agency website (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pop-artist-provocateur-catholic-who-was- andy-warhol-28151) argues that the bulk of Warhol’s art has religious content—that it is more than just a critique of consumerism. Silver Clouds is the intermediary—the bridge—between these two aspects of Warhol’s work.

 

Michel Ségard

 

Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays.

Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds, 1966. Installation view at Lawrence & Clark Gallery. Courtesy of Lawrence & Clark Gallery. Photo by Raul Nino.

Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds, 1966. Installation view with children at play with the clouds. Courtesy of Lawrence & Clark Gallery. Photo by Jason Pickleman.

Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds, 1966. Installation view with gallerist Jason Pickleman. Courtesy of Lawrence & Clark Gallery. Photo by Raul Nino.

 

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