Whatever your background, gallerists Nick Hissom and Kameron Ramirez from the Palm Beach-based gallery Aktion Art want to welcome you into their fold and give you an art experience that bridges blue-chip historical art and the work of emerging artists. As part of a curatorial partnership with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, they bring together pieces by pop art legends Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring with three contemporary artists, ThankYouX, Kristin McIver, and HEES in Pop to Now: Warhol and His Legacy. Last week, I attended the exhibition opening which was accompanied by a public program and a dinner in the galleries. In Warholian spirit, the celebration highlighted art and artists and the scene around them.
“I started painting three years ago,” said HEES during the public panel between the three living artists which curators Hissom and Ramirez moderated. “People told me I was crazy,” the artist continues. He is a former fashion photographer whose career as an artist has taken off since he became engaged by Aktion Art. Under the mentorship of two painters and the gallery, he has developed a distinctive analytical and structural style based mainly on numbers and codes and his relationship to culture. “All art reminds you what it is to be human.” he says; like a TEDTalk guru, he lists what we need to have a balanced life: “health, wealth, and happiness.” A recurring motif in the work is a circle and three lines representing life’s ingredients: art, time, and energy. His signature mark becomes a subliminal message reinforcing this philosophy of life and art on his large-scale canvases. HEES decoding elements and incorporation of rich symbology evoke the work of Basquiat. The exhibition connects Warhol and HEES through their interest in music, while HEES biography perfectly reflects the ethos of Warhol’s studio nicknamed ‘The Factory’—where Warhol made those he found talented or unique famous, highlighting them in his work.
The Bechtler Museum engaged the gallerist duo to re-create an expanded version of a gallery presentation they had staged earlier in the year in Palm Beach. Although museums work closely with galleries to realize exhibitions, contracting gallerists to curate them is unusual and a bold move. Refreshingly, the connections between patronage and the art market that are embedded within the exhibition were discussed in its program. Hissom and Ramirez cleverly dug deeper into the thematic of collecting in a conversation with Warhol’s muse and one of the exhibition’s significant lenders Baby Jane Holzer. When Hissom asked if Warhol would have liked the show, she said: “He would have loved it.” After all, new technologies, seriality, breaking the rules of the art world, and uplifting those around him were his signature traits.
“It was an organic process from start to finish and in the end I believe what we created together is art itself; a magical experience for the viewer. We wanted to showcase the impact Warhol and his contemporaries, including Basquiat and Haring, have had on today’s artists,” says Marley Kaplan a member of Aktion Art’s team about the gallery’s goal for the exhibition.
For instance, ThankYouX, also known as Ryan Wilson, did not enter the art world through traditional channels. His 2009 tribulation to Warhol soon became unmissable on the streets of LA and earned him a name in the art world. At the time, he worked a nine-to-five job as a designer. But, he spent his nights and weekends stenciling and wheat pasting an image of Warhol’s face and the words ‘Thank You x’ across the city, wanting to make a name for himself. It worked, and people started calling him ThankYouX. Wilson adopted the name and continued his practice. Since then, ThankYouX has worked with Sotheby’s, Hans Zimmer, and Aktion Art, among others.
In Pop to Now, ThankYouX’s “Phigitals”—an amalgamation of physical and digital works that incorporate paintings and NFTs are on view. As the NFT is embedded in the painting, it becomes more physical. Giving the NFT a heightened sense of objecthood has the ability to attract a cross-sectional audience. This is important as innovation in Web3 keeps advancing.
The exhibition fills the museum’s largest galleries on the second floor of the elegant building by Mario Botta. It is one of two designed by the Swiss architect in the U.S., and the other is SFMOMA (before its most recent renovation by Snøhetta). Warhol’s work spills into most rooms, while the other artists are presented in more significant concentration. The show includes several silkscreen portraits, illustrating the Warholian concepts of fifteen minutes of fame, elevating his friends by mimicking modes of celebrity culture. Pictures of the Bechtler family created by Warhol in 1973 hang prominently by the entrance. They are important patrons of the arts in Charlotte and the family that let built the museum. Today they are still involved in the museum—Natascha Bechtler, Andreas’ first wife, attended the opening and invited many guests to her home—and are visible in the city’s cultural fabric.
Nine other portraits by Warhol are on view, and more than five dozen by new media artist Kristin McIver, a New-York based Australian native and newcomer to the gallery. However, McIver’s Data Portraits consist of color blocks and question the darker parts of the surveillance state and corporate power. She asked her friends to send her their Face Recognition Data from Facebook. This data is unique and based on algorithms that create units of metadata. She then reinterpreted the data into a color. Each artwork consists of a grid of squares representing one person’s data. However, like with all data, it does not carry meaning until interpreted. Face Recognition Data has a wide range of uses; used by law enforcement, among others, as test subjects did not reflect the racial make-up of the population during its development phase, the work points to the implicit bias built into the code.
McIver’s work subverts data igniting critical conversation about social media in a similar way that Warhol critically engaged with advertising and consumer culture by embracing it. This is nicely segued in a presentation of Warhol’s work in advertising, branding, and design—a wall of record sleeves, for instance, and other memorabilia.
Works by Keith Haring are not numerous. However, I was drawn to a dark painting with a mask-like motif that was decidedly Haring but strayed from his classical aesthetic. Another print of two heads in reverse colors, with a dark background and patterned outline, followed a similar style. These connect with African tribal arts, a common motif in Basquiat’s work. Although adding the three friends and luminaries in one exhibition illustrates the sensibility of the time, the show is primarily centered—as its title alludes—on Warhol and his legacy.
While Aktion Art sells works from the Wynn Family collection—which Hissom directs—the gallery is the brainchild of Hissom and Ramirez, who are forging their path. They are making partnerships an essential part of their program, having worked with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design on a benefit, Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, and Aston Martin, with whom they showed Connor Addison during Art Basel Miami in 2021.
Hissom and Ramirez are dedicated to realizing their vision, and the duo had to push hard for the opening dinner to take place in the exhibition space. “We had to take out a huge insurance policy for the day, but it was worth it to give our guests the special experience of eating and convening amidst the art,” Ramirez told me. As if to say: ‘not only collectors should be able to dine amidst million-dollar Basquiat, and Warhol works.’ No relationships were hidden, and there was no pretense in the exhibition’s curation. Joan Robledo-Palop, a New York based-dealer who has two works on loan in the collection—one 1978 polaroid featuring bananas—suggested that Hissom and Ramirez invite me to their opening, and they did. At the after-party, Hissom told me, “this is how we want our circle to experience art, dressed up in a glamorous but welcoming setting amongst friends.”
Pop to Now fits the tenor of the Bechtler at once, presenting good art but with a personal touch. With their lavish parties, access to blue-chip work, and thoughtfully curated exhibitions, Aktion Art is paving their way in the art world. Slowly but surely, their curatorial methods attract museums looking for new ways to connect with their audiences.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com.