Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Andy Warhol makes Mumbai debut

Forbes India got a behind-the-scenes look at the new pop art exhibit at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, which brings together some of the world's most important artists through the themes of fame, love and power

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Dec 4, 2023 01:33:39 PM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2023 01:38:59 PM IST

Andy Warhol makes Mumbai debutReliance Industries's Isha Ambani and art curator Lawrence Van Hagen have put together a first-of-its-kind exhibition on American Pop Art in South-East Asia, featuring Andy Warhol and other greats.

The Art House at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) looks strikingly different from when it hosted its last exhibit, the Instagram-friendly ‘RUN AS SLOW AS YOU CAN’ by TOILETPAPER magazine. The bold red walls have given way to a stark white palette, punctuated by the riot of colours that comes through the artworks they house, showcasing the versatility of the space.

‘POP: FAME, LOVE AND POWER’, the new show, aims to take audiences on a historical journey through the golden years of the Pop Art movement, featuring seminal American Pop Art pieces from the 1950s onwards. The first exhibit of its kind in India, and perhaps the largest collection of American Pop Art to be showcased in South-east Asia, the show has been curated by Lawrence Van Hagen, a 30-year-old London-based art advisor and curator, who the Gentleman’s Journal called ‘The gallerist of the moment’.

The exhibition presents works by 12 of the biggest names in American Pop Art, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.

“This vivid, colourful and imaginative exhibit fulfils the Cultural Centre’s promise of bringing the best of international art experiences to India. The showcase is special not only because it traces the incredible legacy of Pop Art, but because it has an unmistakable sense of fun about it. I’m especially excited to see it strike a chord with younger audiences and foster a culture of creativity with inspirations that go beyond time and space,” said Isha Ambani, who has envisioned the Art House as a space to showcase a shifting array of installations and exhibits that bring the treasures of Indian and global art to the audience.   

Forbes India got a sneak peek of the four-floor exhibit with curator Van Hagen, where one floor each is dedicated to the themes of Fame, Love and Power. The final floor features a silver balloon-filled immersive Andy Warhol experience, showcasing the fun side of Pop Art.

“Pop Art is fun, but it’s also got deeper meaning. We’re so grateful to be able to bring such important and valuable works to the Cultural Centre here in Mumbai,” says Van Hagen. Edited excerpts from an interview:    

Q. You say that this is the most important museum exhibit that you've put together till date. Why is that?
To put together an art exhibition with some of the world's most important artists in the last 50 years—I'm happy to say that it is definitely my most important exhibition. This is also my first non-commercial exhibition.

I have curated many exhibitions around the world, from London, New York, Venice or even Seoul just recently in September. This is the first exhibition open to public, in an institution where the works are, of course, not for sale whatsoever. I'm also very proud to say that we have museum quality, historic works that have been loaned to us from important private collections as well as estates and museums. So yes, this is by far the most important exhibition to date, and I hope a first to many more.

Q. Why did you choose Pop Art and how do you think the city of Mumbai will connect with it?
When we were discussing the various exhibitions or themes that would be relevant for the Indian audience, Pop Art was shortlisted after much consideration as it reflected Isha (Ambani’s) vision of making art relevant and exciting for the youth.

We asked ourselves – what is a movement that can speak to everyone, from ardent art lovers to those encountering the genre for the very first time? The answer was obvious. It helped that the Pop Art movement includes some of the best-known artists today, including Andy Warhol, whose works collectively have not been displayed in Mumbai before. When you ask someone which artists they know, it’s often Picasso and then Andy Warhol.  We're very lucky that we've managed to loan quite a number of very important works by Warhol, alongside many other works that we've received in the show.

Of course, Pop is also very en vogue today. There are many pop exhibitions around the world, mainly solo exhibitions and big retrospectives. For example, you have an incredible retrospective of Ed Ruscha at the moment in New York, or Keith Haring at the Whitney [Museum of American Art in New York] soon.

We've really focused on curating an exhibition showcasing the 12 pioneers of pop. It’s probably the first surveys of American Pop Art in South-east Asia.

Q. Can you walk us through the journey of putting that together? It can’t have been easy to convince people to send some of these historic works to India…
Look, nothing is easy, in India or not—but doing a show of this caliber in India was a challenge. For me this was a great opportunity, a career-changing opportunity, and I'm ever so grateful that the Art House, the Cultural Centre and Isha trusted me on this voyage.

For themes, we sifted through the recurring subjects of the movement that define its essence, and landed on ‘Fame’, ‘Love’ and ‘Power’. These three were the key themes that the artists interacted with within the golden years of pop, the 60s, especially in America, and so we further narrowed it down to American Pop Art. Isha was very excited because this way the exhibit had something for everyone – from a slice of history to emotions that are universally resonant, and that quirky dash of colour for the youth! We’ve even managed to work with the Andy Warhol Museum to create an interactive installation called ‘Silver Clouds’, where people will be able to get immersed in a room full of floating silver balloons, which hopefully will also show the fun and immersive side of pop art.

Next, we went out scouting for works. Of course, it was challenging to convince people to part with their priceless pieces, but once we explained what we were trying to do, things fell into place. For me, what was very exciting about curating this exhibition was the fact that it was here in Mumbai, in India, in a country and a city that is growing, that is undergoing immense change, much like America at the peak of Pop Art moment.

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Q. What are some of your personal highlights from the exhibit?
I’ve really built an affinity to every single piece. I’m very grateful that we’ve been able to bring an incredible monumental sculpture by husband-wife duo Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which is going to be a big highlight. It’s nearly 4 metres high and weighs a ton or more, featuring an upside down ‘dropped’ bouquet. The work was just finished, created for this exhibition. That was a big commitment from us and the Art House to bring this work—it’s been a huge logistical labour. I’m very excited about it.

I’m also really grateful for the iconic ‘LOVE’ sculpture by Robert Indiana—it’ll be something most people recognise, even if they haven’t seen the original.

In line with Isha’s vision of educating and inspiring the youth, we have created various learning moments across the exhibit, such as these cabinets on the last floor where you’ll be able to see not just original paintings by the artists, but also photography, and letters and poems that they wrote. We want people to really be in this world, see where they came from and what they saw.    

Q. What has your experience been like working with the Cultural Centre?
Honestly, it’s been amazing! We’ve become a bit of a family. We were joking earlier today that my phone has so much battery now, because I’m here in person—otherwise we were speaking nonstop. We really have this relationship where we can talk at any time of day.

I’m really grateful for the trust that Isha has put in me, and for letting me realise her vision. I’ve known the team for a few years, but they took a risk with me putting this together quickly, and it’s been true collective effort. We couldn’t be happier with the way it’s turned out.