Inside the ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ at the Aspen Art Museum

The multimedia Andy Warhol experience at the Aspen Art Museum


What: ‘Andy Warhol: Lifetimes’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through March 27

How much: Free

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The Aspen Art Museum’s Andy Warhol survey does just about every thing that an art exhibition can do to express Warhol’s creative vision – showing the most important work, contextualizing it with ephemera and biographical displays, highlighting lesser known or overlooked aspects of his practice and generally opening viewers eyes to new ways of seeing the artist.

But one of most important aspects of Warhol’s groundbreaking output is also his most ephemeral – the multimedia happenings that he conceived and staged as “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” in 1966 and 1967 with the Velvet Underground and other artists.

Can it be recreated? The museum is trying.

Its “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” designed by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, is a dark room lit by spinning disco balls and filled with projections and audio of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” performances in a room filled with beanbag chairs inviting viewers to soak up the experience. Multi-channel video plays on all four walls – you’ll hear the Velvet Underground and Nico and see Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga and Barbara Rubin.

But can this capture what the actual experiences were, with their light shows, strobe lights, slides and film projections and with the Velvets playing louder-than-loud renditions of their form-smashing compositions? Maybe some bits, and probably not anything like the real thing. Yet sitting there can and does spark the imagination, a worthwhile endeavor.

“These events represent Warhol’s epiphanic moment and remain his greatest work,” former Warhol Museum director and curator Mark Francis has said of these “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings, “however difficult it may be for us to sense their flavor today.”

It all started in April 1966 when Warhol rented a community center on St Mark’s Place in the blighted East Village of Manhattan and began crafting a nocturnal environment for the artists and performers from his fertile Pop Art realm. The brief run that followed, there and on college campus tours, followed the miraculous creative collision of Warhol meeting the Velvets in late 1965.

The collaboration has been recreated and retold in many books and films, including Todd Haynes’ incisive new documentary “The Velvet Underground,” which attempts to recreate aesthetics of those early shows.

“As near as I could figure… it was all happening because we were really interested in everything that was going on,” Warhol once said of the had-to-be-there experiences at The Factory and in the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” “The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything, so naturally we were all trying to do it all.”

Of course, the cold space of a museum gallery is never going to replicate what it must have been like at those gritty and wild original happenings. If they did, it would actually be a lot more uncomfortable than what’s going on in the basement gallery at the Aspen Art Museum.

“It’s tricky,” Warhol biographer Black Gopnik said in a recent phone interview. “I think my complaint about it is they can never turn up the amplifiers to 11 in a museum. One very important thing about the Velvet Underground is that they always turned the amplifiers up to 12. It was unbelievably loud, with unbelievable amounts of feedback. It’s just very hard to recreate that in the polite spaces of contemporary museum.”


Read more of The Aspen Times coverage of this winter’s exhibitions and Andy Warhol’s history in Aspen, look for more throughout the winter:

* “In Aspen with Andy Warhol,” Dec. 2, Aspen Times Weekly

* “Winter of Warhol: Tracing Andy Warhol’s deep Aspen connections as Aspen Art Museum and Powers Art Center open shows,” Dec. 3, The Aspen Times

* “Warhol exhibition begins winter-long run at Aspen Art Museum,” Dec. 4, The Aspen Times

* “Why another Warhol show?” Dec. 9, Aspen Times Weekly

* “Finding Warhol in ‘After and Before,'” Dec. 16, Aspen Times Weekly

* “The Day Andy Warhol Visited the Times,” Dec. 23, Aspen Times Weekly

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