Spin the bottle


EXHIBITION:The business of using art for advertising goes back to the 19th century. Since 1985, Absolut Vodka has convinced some of the best-known names in modern art to boost their brand. Gemma Tipton previews a show devoted to their ad campaigns

FROM ANDY WARHOL to Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat to Louise Bourgeois, it has inspired some of the world’s most famous artists. It has appeared in more paintings than the most inspirational of models and muses, and manages to merge the causes of art and commerce in a way that is the envy of museums and galleries the world over. So what is it about Absolut Vodka that makes people excited about art? What is it about art that seems to fit so well with Absolut Vodka? And why do artists, usually so wary of having their work co-opted for commercial purposes, embrace the whole idea of painting pictures with vodka bottles in them?

The Absolut Collection comprises more than 800 objects (including painting, photography, fashion and furniture) and, since 1994, has been looked after by Marion Kahan. It all began in 1985, when Michel Roux (not the famous chef), went to a party with Andy Warhol. “Roux was the first distributor of Absolut in the US,” says Kahan, “and he and Warhol were talking, and Warhol said that although he didn’t really drink, he liked to use Absolut as a perfume – which was a very Warholian thing to say, as vodka has no scent. Michel asked him if he would do an Absolut artwork, and it went from there.”

The first Absolut ad wasn’t by an artist. It was devised in 1980 by the agency TBWA in New York, and featured the spot-lit bottle with a halo, and the line “Absolut Perfection”. Geoff Hayes, who came up with the ad, claimed he got the idea while he was in the bath. But from Warhol on, the list of artists who have got their inspiration from a bottle has grown to become a Who’s Who of contemporary art.

The tradition of using artists for advertising goes back to the 19th century. In 1886, William Hesketh Lever (of Lever Brothers, who more recently had Mary McEvoy telling Irish TV audiences if they weren’t satisfied, they could get their money back) bought the painting Bubbles from the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais and used it to advertise his Pears’ soap. Bubbles is a rather cheesy portrait of Millais’s godson. The ad was a big success, and others followed, including Charles Burton Barber’s Girl with Dog from 1893, in which a red-haired girl cuddles puppies. This appeared as the Lever ad The Family Wash in 1901. Lever, who was an expert in advertising in his day, once remarked that 50 per cent of the money he spent on advertising was wasted, it was just that he didn’t know which 50.

The idea of patrons and paymasters wanting their money’s worth from artists goes back even further than that – it only takes a look at Renaissance paintings, where Medici faces stare back at you from otherwise purely religious scenes, to demonstrate that artists have been in the service of commerce from way back. “Art and commerce have been together throughout time,” agrees Kahan. “Just look at Michelangelo. But Absolut was the first contemporary true marriage of the two. It was such an intense visual marriage of the brand name and the art.”

She attributes the success of the campaign not just to the standard and commitment of the artists involved, but also to the strategy that went into executing the campaigns. “It was featured on the back of every single art magazine in the United States: ArtForum, Art News, Art in America. And then it went into the design magazines. So when you picked up a magazine, you expected to see Absolut there. And it went beyond that; many people who knew nothing about art caught on to it and became interested that way.”

In the beginning, the artists were commissioned through word-of-mouth. “Warhol begat Kenny Scharf, who begat Keith Haring, and so it went on. I think artists aren’t really thrilled by the commerciality,” continues Kahan. “But what surprised me the most was how many artists said ‘yes’. I would imagine they’d say ‘no’. Scharf and Haring were up and coming, so to be brought in by Warhol helped, and I’m sure the chunk of money was alluring at that time. There was only one artist who said ‘stop advertising my work’, and that was Ed Ruscha, and he basically said he was sick of seeing himself.”

There are also rumours of the promise of free vodka for life. “I think a lot of people were made that offer,” Kahan agrees. “I don’t know if it’s ever come through. I had a conversation with Robert Rauschenberg at one point, I was hoping to get him to do a piece, and I did use that: I said ‘vodka for the rest of your life’. And he definitely thought about it – he didn’t do it in the end, but he didn’t out-and-out say no . . . It would be a lovely thing to have vodka for the rest of your life.”

Irish artist Michael Kane is also in the Absolut Collection, and remembers the hint of vodka forever. “There was mention of it, but I think it was a myth,” he says. “I approached it like any other commission. They don’t put any stipulations on you, except that you have to include the vodka bottle, so it tied in with the work I was doing. I said ‘yes’ because I had seen the catalogue of artists in the collection and it was very impressive.”

Kane’s painting, Absolut Kane, is a still-life, featuring the Absolut bottle and a glass with paint brushes. It was featured in an exhibition at Dublin’s Rubicon Gallery in 2001, alongside Absolut artworks by artists including Warhol, Peter Blake, Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili and Maurizio Cattelan. “It was thrilling to select from such a terrific inventory of contemporary works,” remembers the Rubicon’s Josephine Kelliher. “Public interest in the exhibition was extraordinary, and I came across a few Absolut groupies who visit or collect material from each project. It captured the public imagination.”

The pulling power of Absolut is astonishing. Kahan, whose other projects include work for the Guggenheim and managing the estate of Mark Rothko, says that of all her jobs, Absolut is the one people are most impressed by. Perhaps this is because Absolut provides a way in to the sometimes snobbish and arcanely off-putting world of contemporary art. It is also more honest than most about its commercial objectives. While many, myself included, want art to embody what is noble, pure and good, it is also made in the real world, by real people with their own needs and agendas.

“So many people don’t ever want to admit this or realise it,” says Kahan. “But from working in galleries, as well as with Absolut, I’ve learned it’s a business. Art is a business. In the gallery, everyone wants to look, and they might say the work is beautiful; but you’d better hope your work sells because that gallery has to pay the bills, has to pay for the premises, has to pay for the ads that bring people in to see your work. You can’t have art without commerce, but so many people, artists included, don’t want to see that, don’t want to understand that.”

Kane remembers having dinner with friends around the time of his commission. “Their teenaged son had been reading No Logo, and he said ‘Michael Kane has sold out.’ But I hadn’t. I wouldn’t have done it if it had meant that.”

Sixteen works from the Absolut Collection (not including Michael Kane’s) are on show at the Festival Gallery, Merchant’s Road, Galway for the Galway Arts Festival, from July 13th to 26th. See www.galwayartsfestival.com for details.

Michael Kane’s work is on exhibition at the Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, from July 25th to 31st. See www.gerardmhopkins.org