Andy Warhol: In A Flash
There is not much that hasn’t been said or written about Andy Warhol. With the closing of the major retrospective at the Whitney Museum this past March and the thousands of new viewers that were introduced to the wonder of Warhol, perhaps we can continue developing alternate perspectives on the single artist who revolutionized what it means to be contemporary. Fresh as ever even with the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death, Andy Warhol is still the artist we love to learn about, live with, invest in, memorialize and view. We keep his memory alive and evolving with every click, purchase, article, or book read and museum visit. Which begs the question, what can we stand to investigate further about the artist who is larger than life?
To any visitor of the Andy Warhol show at the Whitney, it was a revelation. Even though we sincerely believed we’d seen everything he’d done we discovered his not-quite hand drawings made by way of his blotted-line technique, a homemade lo-fi version of a printing press and the precursor to the screen prints of the 1960s. Such swoony drawings inked onto tracing paper and carefully blotted. It’s basically fan art, teenaged and unabashed: James Dean, with his lovely Cocteau head, flung back, next to a tree hung with hearts and a flipped-over car. This was Warhol before he’d invented Warhol, back when he was a scrawny, pallid, hungry boy. “Friendless and hopeless,” Truman Capote called him, when he stood beneath the writer’s window each day, gazing longingly up. Did he want this? The fame, the glamour and the calling of a creative passion he could express with the world? Yes, Andy did. Using art as a way of conjuring the objects of his desire, Warhol invented what he needed in the paucity of his reality, a miner’s son willing celebrity, and beauty his way.
Andy Warhol was likely the first artist in history who took photographs and was photographed in equally massive numbers. Picasso, for example, became a celebrity before the age of 30 and was photographed constantly as one for the rest of his life. His curiosity about the medium though was negligible. After 1976 until his death, it is estimated Warhol shot an average of one roll a day with a Minox 35 EL or an Olympus/Zuiko AF, mostly in black and white. He was just as avid about being photographed by others and photographing himself. Photography was at the heart of Warhol’s post-1962 endeavors, as he harnessed it’s mechanical properties – the image-making ease and speed, low-rent realism, automatic seriality, and slavish reproductive fecundity – with a devotion unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
During the early 1960s, he had appropriated photos taken by others for his silk-screen portraits of Jackie, Marilyn, Liz, and Elvis. At the same time, he recognized the value of art made from images he had photographed himself or that he owned the copyright of. The manufactured uniformity of photography, like the dependable taste of Coca-Cola, appealed to Warhol and gave him ready-made borders that he could play with or against if he chose to use a photograph as the basis for a silk-screen or painting. So many of the artistic decisions about making a portrait had already been made by the camera that he could concentrate on the ones that had not.
But the primary function of “instant” photography for him, as it was for everyone else, was to take pictures of friends – Joseph Beuys included – in a style that runs from snapshot informal to campily studied. On The Factory’s walls immortalized behind the portraits, one can find fragments of Warhol’s artwork from the period so that Warhol’ real-life pals share space with Jackie and Grace. Most surprising are the many kinds of Self-Portraits he made during these early years: double exposures, with flash in mirrors, standing in an empty room or against a wall, wearing sunglasses, with one eye covered, or without any apparent disguise. As a group, these photographs expose Warhol as more of a photographic Modernist in his curiosity about what the medium could do.
In 1968, he began to photograph in earnest, relentlessly and skillfully. Warhol treated certain photographs as first drafts that were then transferred to other media for his signature handwork, while many photographs were finished works. Some began as magazine assignments (for his editors at Interview), or as the basis for commercial products such as album covers for the Rolling Stones or advertising campaigns for the likes of Absolut. Many photographs were specific templates for the private commissions that became a lucrative source of income in the 1970s and 1980s as proper, uptown types sought to gain a measure of downtown disrespectability by paying Warhol to paint them. Finally, a number of photographs were more like diary entries, a sketchbook of the incredible parade of famous people that passed through Warhol’s life almost every day, as well as the more ordinary crowds of friends that surrounded him.
The camera did plenty of work in the ‘70s as Warhol was becoming, in Robert Rosenblum’s phrase, the decade’s “court painter.” And what a glamorous, tawdry Versailles it was that this son of a Pennsylvania coal miner found himself the sky king during the disco years and into the Reagan era! Not even the bon vivant music entrepreneurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s enjoyed access to such a motley cross-section of American and European society. These photographs signify who was welcome into Warhol’s club, a place at once private, snobbish, and hostile to middle-class squares and yet open to scores of outcasts, the prodigiously talented or the merely sensational and anyone making news on the front page or the gossip section of the tabloids. Also welcome was anyone who was prepared to pay the cash for a private commission, so in reality, the club was also run as a commercial enterprise something modern day influencers channel all too well.
The sociability of Warhol’s portraits is reflected in the wide array of subjects; many of which are his contemporaries like Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney. Also granted admittance to the party of luminaries from the yesteryears of pre-World War II modernism, many of whom Warhol admired, are Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Georgia O’Keefe. Younger artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s, thanks in part to support from Warhol and Interview magazine make guest appearances like Julian Schnabel and Kenny Scharf. Or they received more adulatory treatment like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Warhol’s chief discovery and obsessive object of desire in his last years).
His images identified the downtown New York and LA personages in their various guises. Warhol’s portrait prints can’t be called psychological; he put more credence into masks and makeup. Most of the photographs from the commissioned portrait sessions were taken indoors with flash and required preproduction by a crew of assistants. Warhol wanted the women to remove all or most of their jewelry before having white makeup applied to their faces, necks, and shoulders. As Vincent Fremont has written: “Making the face unnaturally white compensated for the effect of the flashcube, flattened and softened the surface of the woman’s face, and hid unwanted wrinkles. This softening effect also helped with the high contrast which developed when the photographs were transferred to the acetates that were used to make the silkscreen and eventually the paintings.” Many women wear their artificial pallor with aplomb, as though they were amused and flattered to be asked to look like Kabuki actors. All have in common either remarkable artistic talent, a long-standing relationship with Warhol, an illustrious family pedigree, or marvelous cheekbones, and some have all of the above.
The effort in each case, despite what some thought at the time, was to glamorize, not to mock the subject. But at different times he might capture people in contrasting moods. Photographs allowed Warhol endless experimentation given the process. He is able to show an adventurous if tentative, approach to flash. In a startling 1984 photograph of a fuzzy brown spill from a red can of Coke, Warhol starts to enter in William Eggleston’s domestic, mundane domains. Much of the enduring Warhol mystique derives from such unpredictable couplings. His sensibility did not socially discriminate. He was happy to capture avant-garde theatre troupes, drag queens, politicians, socialites, musicians, actors, writers, athletes, and business tycoons.
He took photography seriously and loved doing it. It was even a way he related to people. It may also be one of the primary ways that someone who was self-conscious about his looks related to himself. The dozens of self-portraits from the late ‘70s and ‘80s suggest that he had a complicated relationship with the camera. For an artist whose faith in surfaces was abiding, it must have been disconcerting that when he stood in front of the lens, without the armor of a disguise, the pitiless glass so effortlessly revealed his inward and outer truth. At the same time, he also had amassed plenty of evidence that the camera could ameliorate insecurities, or, with the right wig and make-up, transform a shy individual into a poised beauty. The grave professionalism with which he approached his self-portraits, among the most varied, secure and moving series he ever did, indicates that he knew he had succeeded in bending photography’s lies to his own camouflaged version of the truth.
It’s tempting to think that Warhol would have embraced Instagram and the selfie because his serial portraiture anticipates so many of the uses and satisfactions available with digital technology. He certainly would have appreciated the instant feedback and cheap profligacy of an iPhone camera. The connect he drew in his art between photography and fame – and how both were in some way ineffable abstractions, like money – has become a bedrock belief of a generation that measures success in Youtube hits, likes and shares. The strange, dual effect of his celebrity portraits is another prescient sensation for our time when the value of individual images seems more debased than ever, with millions of photographs squeezed into Facebook’s format every day.
“I don’t like big moments, weddings, anniversaries, funerals. I like to play things all at the same level,” Warhol once said. These lines were quoted by Nicholas Love at Warhol’s funeral service. Would he have admired what he had wrought and joined Instagram? Probably. Then again, as these pages suggest, Warhol was never one to run with a crowd even when pretending to be a face in it.