At an Andy Warhol exhibition, the ‘influencer’ finds its home

New York: It's Friday night in the Meatpacking district. Nightclubs are swelling with people. A production crew fills a crowded street, filming a scene outside a warehouse of the Weichsel Beef Company. Late night shoppers spill onto the footpath. High heels click along the old cobble-stone roads.

But the biggest line, by far, is outside the Whitney Museum of American Art, at least a hundred people snaking around the building in the late November cold.

Portraits by Andy Warhol are arranged in an Instagram-like grid at an exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.Credit:Instagram

They're here for the biggest Andy Warhol exhibition since 1980 and the largest exhibition the Whitney has ever devoted to a single artist; 350 of the late New Yorker's works occupying three floors.

Inside, there are more cameras at work than the nearby film shoot. Visitors are more dressed up than the nightclubbers.

Two guys wearing designer sneakers and camouflage pants pose in a rap squat in front of Warhol's fluorescent skull screen prints. There is an informal queue to take a selfie with the iconic Marilyn Munroe diptych. A couple asks a stranger to photograph them kissing in front of the floor-to-ceiling painting of Communist leader Mao Zedong.

There are only a few things that irritate me about living in New York – incessant and unnecessary use of the car horn, my thin apartment walls. And, increasingly, the excruciating, pervasive need for people to be seen as a somebody – or just downright seen – as defined by Instagram.

Recently, I was literally bumped out of the way so a blonde beauty in thigh-high boots could take a sexy photograph next to a rotting sarcophagus at the Met.

My local Indian restaurant now has a two-hour wait on Saturday nights, not because it's good (it most definitely isn't) but because someone famous discovered that its thousands of hanging Christmas lights look amazing on Instagram. (In fact, in the search for the next best thing in New York, anything that's really bad seems to be really cool, like Forlini's, a dank Italian joint that took off on Instagram after Vogue staged a party there.)

So would Warhol be turning in his grave at the site of the Insta-hordes, coming to see his art for its selfie potential and 'I was there' bragging rights?

Wandering through the gallery, past a kaleidoscope of celebrity screenprints, self-portraits in all forms and a room of 75 portraits, from Muhammad Ali to Truman Capote and Debbie Harry, arranged in floor-to-ceiling Insta-like grid, the obvious answer is no.

Not only did Warhol predict the Instagram world of becoming famous for nothing – "In the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes," his well-known quote goes – but he seemed to be a perfect prototype of today's influencer.

The first of Andy Warhol’s many self-portraits, an early form of the modern day selfie.Credit:AP

He was a shameless self promoter, making sure to incorporate his name and contact details in his early commercial illustrations and then, later in life, hosting his own TV show. He obsessed over celebrities like Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy, screenprinting them many times over before he became a celebrity himself. He loved a selfie. And his tendency to take Polaroids of everything – from celebrity friends like Edie Sedgwick and Bianca Jagger down to soup cans and bananas – presaged the era of social media.

"A picture means I know where I was every minute. That's why I take pictures. It's a visual diary," he once said.

Sounds familiar.

Such was his love of being seen to be seen, that his artistic talent was not what most people knew him for in the 70s and 80s, said curator Donna De Salvo, who met Warhol twice.

A visitor takes a selfie beside one of Andy Warhol’s art installations.Credit:Instagram

“People were not paying attention to his work,” she told Art Net. "He was the guy who just goes to a lot of openings.”

It seems that an exhibition on an urbane, selfie-loving artist, staged in one of Manhattan's most ostentatious neighbourhoods, could be nothing but an influencer's paradise.

"How could you not allow people to take photographs in a Warhol exhibition? It’s going to be selfie-central," the museum’s director Adam Weinberg predicted, adding that he hoped the show would make a younger generation "aware of where a lot of this came from".

Warhol would love it.

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