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Love Letter to American OOH

OOH’s own Warhol

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Martin Firrell

by Martin Firrell,  Artist, Martin Firrell Company

In 1963, my fellow artist Andy Warhol went on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles. He couldn’t drive (neither can I) so he enlisted the help of his friends: artist Wynn Chamberlain, poet Gerard Melanga and actor Taylor Mead.

This long trip across the continental US marked a turning point in Warhol’s development as a Pop artist. The cause of that change was, in no small part, American OOH.

When Warhol saw the billboards along Route 66 (‘America’s Main Street’, ‘the hipsters highway’), he saw them as pure Pop Art. Where most people saw only American advertising, he saw American high art. Burma-Shave offered a compound riddle told across 6 separate billboards: If you / Don’t know / Whose signs / These are / You can’t have / Driven very far / Burma-Shave.  Wilson’s Ham shouted from the roadside, ‘No waste, Great taste!’ And Coppertone promised the ‘Fastest tan under the sun’.

‘It was a beautiful time to be driving across America!’ Warhol said.

‘It was a beautiful time to be driving across America!’

I have long thought that detractors of OOH are missing the larger picture – OOH is undeniably an important aspect of our visual culture. There is a long and noble shared history between the commercial billboard and the development of contemporary art. And nobody does it better than America!

Who is to say that a 1990s Marky Mark billboard for Calvin Klein is a less power signifier of the times than a contemporary painting in an art gallery? The Klein billboard will certainly be seen by many, many more people, and Marky Mark in his Calvins shows us who we are, or who we would like to be, or who we would like to be with.

As a public artist I have created an unusually large body of work expressly for the OOH medium. I am OOH’s own Warhol! I love the scale, publicness and transparency of OOH. My artworks, unlike their commercial cousins, are not selling anything material. The majority of my works use visual culture to call for a world made more humane by justice for all.

I am OOH’s own Warhol!

Last time I wrote for OOH Today, I threw down a challenge to DOOH. I wanted to know who might be bold enough to partner with me to make and show 100 artworks in 100 days.

One OOH company got in touch straightaway. And you guessed it: it was American. Bulletin Displays has a network of vast and beautiful digital screens across the freeways of LA. Clearly, the team at Bulletin also have the vision to use them in bold and imaginative ways.

As Warhol crossed America, Ford was advertising its new Falcon model with a version of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Cistine Chapel. In the Ford version, God and Adam were both reaching out for the Falcon car keys! I think it’s time to acknowledge the deep cultural value of the billboard and OOH. And it seems only right to start with the home of Pop Art  – and the land of the can-do billboard company – America!

The public artist Martin Firrell is internationally renowned for showing socially engaged artworks in collaboration with the OOH industry.

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