The Warhol work I have chosen to write about is “Silver Clouds” (1966, metalized polyester film with helium), with the companion “Cow Wallpaper” (1966, serigraph, i.e., silkscreen, printed on wallpaper).
“Silver Clouds” was a collaborative work with Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Warhol had initially asked Klüver to help him craft a “floating light bulb.” 3M had developed a plastic film called Scotchpak that could be heat sealed, and when Klüver showed it to Warhol, Andy said, “Let’s make clouds.” He folded the material into a rectangle and filled it with helium.
The collaboration between the electrical engineer and the artist inspired others. The choreographer Merce Cunningham saw “Silver Clouds” and asked Warhol to incorporate the work into a new dance performance. The performance, “Rain Forest,” premiered in 1968 and included a set designed by Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns.
“Silver Clouds” was first exhibited at Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York in 1966. This was intended to be Warhol’s retirement from painting; he planned to focus on filmmaking. According to the Tate website, Warhol said, “I thought that the way to finish off painting for me would be to have a painting that floats, so I invented the floating silver rectangles that you fill up with helium and let out of your windows.” This was not part of a series, and the room containing the Clouds was adjacent to a room that was papered with the famous Cow Wallpaper; as viewers strolled through the rooms, the Clouds floated along with them, stirred by the air currents, into the Cow Wallpaper room. I saw the Warhol exhibit in 1989 at the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Clouds were in the same room as the Cow Wallpaper. The combination of the colorful yet bland image of a cow and the whimsical, floating silver Clouds was a very enjoyable experience. The Cloud room at the Castelli gallery was painted white. Although this could be seen as a hazy summer sky, or a cold wintry sky, the Cow Wallpaper added a colorful and cheery backdrop to one of Warhol’s more “fun” works.
By some accounts, Warhol said of his Cow Wallpaper, “This is all of us.” Although that would seem to be a rather scathing remark about his fans, Warhol himself was a huge fan of celebrity and pop culture. He did not say, “This is all of YOU.” He included himself among the herd. Our current obsession with celebrity is reflected in the repetitious, vapid cow images of the Wallpaper. We are all guilty of it to a certain extent, and Warhol both understood that and was a willing participant in both documenting the celebrity worship and promoting it. Elvis, Liz, Marilyn, Mick…all of them got the Warhol portrait treatment. He created numerous celebrities himself, including Edie Sedgwick, Viva, and Ultra Violet.
“Silver Clouds” is often seen as a collaboration between art and technology. Warhol used a newly available material to fashion an interactive piece of art, essentially an installation work. The viewer becomes part of the exhibit; their movements cause the clouds to move and changes the work. The famous Chicago artwork Cloud Gate (AKA “The Bean”) by Anish Kapoor is Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” writ large, both in content and intent. The viewers, by taking pictures of their reflections in the shiny surface of The Bean, add to the artwork. It is a participatory experience, whether you are alone or with others.
The Warhol Museum website states that the Clouds “…created an ethereal, joyful atmosphere, and challenged traditional expectations of art by mingling with and touching the viewer.” The floating Clouds seem peaceful, and if they bump up against you, you can’t help but laugh. Wave your hand, and the Clouds move. Walk quickly, and one might follow in your wake, like a car catching the current behind a semi.
This seems somewhat different from Warhol’s usual works. So much of his art can be bleak; this seems almost childlike in its sense of sheer fun. Many of his works have the viewer gazing at a painting or watching a movie in which very little action takes place, and we are casual, aloof observers. In the case of “Silver Clouds,” the viewer is reflected in the work, making them, if only briefly (Fifteen minutes? Fifteen seconds?), one of Warhol’s celebrities.
Recent news: The Warhol and Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research station, invited interdisciplinary artist Jace Clayton to compose a sound installation for Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds installation. Listen to the sound installation here: http://www.warhol.org/event/jace-clayton-silver-clouds/