Peggy Phelan and Richard Meyer’s Contact Warhol: Photography Without End

Peggy Phelan and Richard Meyer
Contact Warhol: Photography Without End
(MIT Press and Cantor Arts Center, 2018)

If Andy Warhol had an Instagram account, its feed would probably look like the 3,600 gridded contact sheets he produced during the last decade of his life. A thumbnail-sized menagerie of #nofilter photographic images, these single-page prints of film negatives are a product of Warhol’s millennial-foreshadowing practice of carrying a camera with him everywhere he went between 1976 and his death in 1987. After long being relegated to marginalia status in the overarching view of Warhol’s career, the contact sheet collection is at last receiving its debut in an exhibition at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center and an image-rich catalogue bearing the same name, Contact Warhol: Photography Without End.

The photographs that populate these sheets are not the posed Polaroids Warhol would enlarge and silkscreen in saturated hues. Instead, these casual black-and-white snapshots are a glimpse into the Pop artist’s everyday life, his simultaneously glamorous and mundane existence. “A picture just means I know where I was every minute,” Warhol explained of the then-unusual photography habit in a 1985 interview. “That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.”

Showcasing Warhol’s kaleidoscopic world of gala events, gay sex workers, disco parties and flea markets, these unstaged images were committed to film without future artworks in mind.  Most of the exposures were never even printed full-scale during Warhol’s lifetime. The prolific artist is estimated to have created over 10,000 paintings, 500 films, 1,700 prints, 20,000 photos, 400 videos and twenty-three hours of television during his fifty-nine year lifetime. This colossal output has garnered equally hefty attention; the fifth installment of his catalogue raisonné was recently released and his large-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art opened in November. And yet, before co-curators Peggy Phelan and Richard Meyer, no one has taken a magnifying loupe to the roughly 130,000 miniature photographic images in the contact sheets.

Given our current preoccupation with self-documentation, the contact sheets are especially poignant. “These past three decades [since Warhol’s death] might be seen as a kind of developing ink,” writes Phelan, director of the Stanford Arts Institute, in the catalogue. “As if the exposures were slumbering in a very slow chemical bath, and the conditions of visibility did not allow us to see them until now.” With her contemporary hindsight, Phelan views Warhol’s contact sheets not only as illustrative documents but also a sort of eleven year durational performance piece, since his daily camera-carrying was so rare at the time.

The sheets reproduced in the catalogue show a historic (and highly entertaining) look back at Warhol’s New York circle in the early 1980s, including some big-name celebrities in their younger days: Keith Haring embracing his boyfriend; the wedding of Arnold Schwartzenegger and Maria Shriver; a pearly Madonna look-alike contest; an enormously-coiffed Dolly Parton; Bianca Jagger shaving her armpits. “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing unfamous things,” Warhol wrote in his first photography book, Exposures (1979). Co-curator Meyer, an art history professor at Stanford University, argues that this compulsive photographing of celebrities was a way for Warhol to take one step back from a glitterati world in which he never felt completely at ease.

The contact sheets also present Warhol as an editor, giving insight into his well-honed eye. Red and yellow greased pencil marks punctuate the contact sheets, circling which exposures Warhol and his collaborator, Christopher Makos, intended to print. These selections were usually made on Friday nights, when Warhol reviewed his week in miniature photographs. Seeing which images the artist chose to enlarge, especially when they were part of a series, hints at what he found visually valuable.

Warhol’s picks don’t always match those of co-curators Phelan and Meyer, though, leading them to create a grouping of enlargements (fully illustrated in the catalogue) named ‘Warhol/Not Warhol’ from the artist’s outtakes. Meyer warns that Contact Warhol makes “Warhols that were not Warhols before now.” This raises some very Warholian questions about image authorship, to be sure, but could also be due justice for an artist who frequently appropriated the work of others: his now-iconic images of Marilyn Monroe were based on a publicity still from her 1953 film Niagara, he borrowed an image of hibiscus flowers from photographer Patricia Caulfield, and the Brillo Box that he transformed into a Pop sculpture was designed by Abstract Expressionist painter James Harvey.

Contact Warhol adopts the artist’s tendency to reinvent someone else’s work. 35mm negatives become enlarged positives and discarded exposures are brought to light. But beyond that, a once analog practice of traveling with a film camera is compared to our 21st century obsession with digitally chronicling the ordinary. Bearing the hashtag #contactwarhol, Phelan and Meyer have launched a conversation about Warhol’s old habit being new again, with the hope that its contemporary relatability jumpstarts a deeper look at Warhol’s contact sheets as a whole.

Contributor

Karen Chernick

is a Philadelphia-based arts and culture journalist, and her writing has appeared on Artsy, Hyperallergic, Lonely Planet, and The Forward, among other publications. She holds an MA in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU), and can be found online at www.karenchernick.com.

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