Andy Warhol: Photographyby Jane Simon
Andy Warhol Photography, Curated by Christoph Heinrich. Presented at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; and the International Center for Photography, New York.
There have been a number of exhibitions about Andy Warhol since his death in 1987. These range from Nadar/Warhol:Paris/NY: Photography and Fame at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to the 1989 retrospective of Warhol’s work that Kynaston McShine organized for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each has addressed the work of this influential artist, but the current exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York is the first to focus solely on Warhol’s photography. Bringing together pictures of Warhol, photo-booth snapshots, Polaroids, films, and the vast array of popular culture items Warhol collected, the exhibition explores Warhol’s complicated relationship to his art and to his own mythic status. Photography was perhaps the perfect medium for Warhol—in its duality, it is at once immediate and distant, objective and partisan. This exhibition accomplishes something of what Warhol’s photography set out to do: record a particular place and moment in time, and in doing so, contribute dialogically to the aura of an icon. By juxtaposing art and photography, collected memorabilia and mediated images, it lays bare the image-making process.
Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928, Warhol grew up the shy and meek son of working-class parents. From his high school graduation picture, c. 1950-52, and childhood friend Leila Davies Singelis’s picture of Warhol when he first moved to New York, we are given a glimpse of the shy yet precocious young man who boldly came to New York to work as a graphic designer in 1949. A photograph by Duane Michals of Warhol and his mother from 1958 shows the young man in focus while his mother is a shadowy figure lurking in the foreground. Though Warhol was working steadily by this time, his mother had moved from Pittsburgh to be with him in New York and cook his meals; Michals, a frequent photographer of Warhol, captured the duality of the cosmopolitan designer and the small-town boy that coexisted within Warhol.
Under the heading “Warhol as Icon for the Camera,” the show further explores pictorially Warhol’s enigmatic persona. We witness his metamorphosis from the art student in Pittsburgh and the price he had to pay. As the wall text interestingly points out, Warhol underwent plastic surgery, ingested diet pills, and wore a wig to achieve the look we all have come to know. When taking pictures of himself, Warhol rarely adopted the positive angle, and the Polaroids of himself dressed as a woman are haunting. Fascinated by the smaller details and the promise of dressing in drag, Warhol’s photos of himself are an exercise in failure. Overexposed and invasively candid, they are a meditation on impossibility despite the help of a blonde wig and red lipstick. David McCabe’s photograph of Warhol with Edie Sedgwick on top of the Empire State building shows two glamorous people literally on top of the world, whereas Avedon’s portrait of Warhol shows a scarred man unsure about revealing the vestiges of an assassination attempt just one year before. Just five years separate the two photographs, but they depict almost opposite identities. Warhol’s public hubris had obviously made him a target for potshots—literally and figuratively. His scars had become part of his public image, but it is clear the tide had turned. He was afraid.
Using both photo booths and Polaroids, Warhol was a master of amateur methods. He based much of his painting work in the early 1960s on photo-booth portraits he organized. Part Catholic confessional, part personal performance, these photographs brought out many important personality traits in people used to performing in the spotlight, such as the jazz musician Bobby Short and the future art dealer Holly Solomon. Short, for example, is moonfaced and exuberant while Solomon is seductive and elusive. Later, in the 1970s, Warhol started using a Polaroid Big Shot camera. As his social life increasingly involved glamorous dinner parties and high-profile events, Warhol brought the large camera with him everywhere, photographing his friends, colleagues, and famous acquaintances.
Though the photographer is forever imprisoned behind the metallic body of the camera (and the Big Shot was surely not something you could hide), the Polaroid was celebrated as the camera without that problem. Because its effect was so quick, many thought it could be the one camera that would not hide the photographer. But Warhol’s work belied such optimism. While its effects are immediate, the Polaroid seems to have been a prop for Warhol. It was an introduction to the celebrities he admired, but it was also a mask, simultaneously an excuse for inclusion and exclusion. By clicking the shutter to produce a two-dimensional souvenir, Warhol was making a party that could be possessed and safeguarded for the future—one he could join at will, just by looking. If the portraits and the photographs of Marilyn give us an understanding of her iconic status in the 20th century, then Warhol’s snapshots of such diverse figures as Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, and Martha Graham give us another moment in the 20th century—a view of history defined in popular and personal terms.
Discussions about Warhol have not always linked his sexuality with his art. One way in which the show opens up this issue is by showing a selection of his homoerotic images grouped under the heading “Most Beautiful Boys.” The photocollage “Untitled (Greco-Roman Figures/Wrestlers)” (1976-86), shows how Warhol was not just fascinated with the male body but with the history of art. Moreover, images like “Nude Model” (1977) prove that Warhol was documenting issues and sexual practices society has only begun to openly discuss. In addition, one of Warhol’s first films, Kiss, examines the differences between heterosexual and homosexual relations during the intense act of kissing. The situations are captured in cinematic and real contexts, and they are always a vigorous study of the mechanics and meaning of sexual foreplay. In these works, the camera provides Warhol with both a peephole and protective cover, exposing him to intimacy without allowing or requiring him to join in.
While Warhol was clicking the shutter, he was also interested in exploring existing images and their cultural significance. For example, Warhol sorted through dozens of photographs at the New York Public Library to pick the electric chair from Sing Sing that killed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and that singular public artifact became the material for his “Electric Chair” series from 1971. In this exhibition, the viewer is able to decipher the old-fashioned caption to the electric chair photograph and then experience the nine brightly colored and almost playful “Electric Chair” screenprints. Likewise, the horrific photograph of the ambulance accident in Chicago in 1963, where two ambulances collided after rushing to the hospital from an automobile accident, is juxtaposed with the double image Warhol created entitled “Ambulance Disaster.” Warhol’s intention with these images is not clear, and the methods he used to make them add to the mystery. Art historian Hal Foster has suggested that in these works, the trauma of the real event comes through even in the repeated and mediated state of Warhol’s silk-screened tableaux. “Repetition serves to screen the real understood as traumatic. But this very need also points to the real, and at this point the real ruptures the screen of repetition.” Most importantly, these connections link information and understanding, image and emotion. The real, represented by the photograph, next to the art makes the art seem that much more purposeful, personal, and effective. Here, the exhibition goes a step further than Warhol, focusing on repeating his repetitions and placing him alongside his work in the history of 20th century art.
The question of Warhol’s relationship to his subjects is raised again with his images of Jackie Onassis. The exhibition allows the viewer to travel back in time through newspaper images of Jackie from the early 1960s, and finally, the famous cover of Life magazine from January 1961, her freshman year as First Lady. These popular celebrations, from Warhol’s own treasure trove of magazines and cutouts, serve as the foundation to the whimsical collage of Onassis that is a study for the Jackie ensemble from 1964.
What was the basis for Warhol’s fascination with Jackie O. and other female stars? As an 11-year-old boy, Warhol had written to Shirley Temple and was rewarded with an autographed picture of the childhood star. Though attracted to the male body, as a physical and cultural entity, Warhol’s obsession with cultural icons was played out in his collecting and manipulating of the photographic images of iconic women. These images—obsessively collected, then manipulated—seem to summarize Warhol’s relationship to popular culture in general and pop sexuality in particular.
Here he was at once a fan and a critic. Jackie O. and Shirley Temple, two favorites, might seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum—Jackie, sophisticated, enigmatic, Shirley, naïve and girlish—but they are similar in the Warhol pantheon. Both are outrageously popular, scrutinized and inscrutable, delicious and untouchable. This is the duality of his obsession, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion, celebration and irony. These women are objects that cannot be possessed—made possessable by the artist himself.
By assembling various aspects of Warhol’s experimentation with photography, the current exhibition at the International Center for Photography poignantly questions the nature of photography and Andy Warhol’s attachment to the medium. Andy Warhol Photography highlights the process by which Warhol made art—collecting and photographing, and it gives us insight into the process that made him an icon. By exposing the architecture of the myth in American culture, we are re-confronted with the iconography of the person in a celebrity-age.
Andy Warhol Photography. Exhibition Catalogue. Pittsburgh: The Andy Warhol Museum and Hamburg: Hamburg Kunsthalle, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang: The Noonday Press, 1981.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
Crow, Thomas. “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol.” Art in America, May 1987, pp. 129-36.
Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.