DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       June 2006  

 

WARHOL’S WORLD: Photography and Television

Zwirner & Wirth,
32 East 69th Street,
New York, N.Y., 10028
April 5 - 29, 2006

By BRIAN APPEL



Andy Warhol Bob Colacello and Bianca Jagger n.d.
Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches
Courtesy Zwirner and Wirth © 2006 The Warhol Foundation



Imagining Andy Warhol at a party or an opening without his camera would be like imagining Sherlock Holmes at a crime scene without his magnifying glass. “Warhol’s World” at Zwirner & Wirth presented over 300 unique, 35mm vintage black-and-white photographic prints of celebrities taken at a time when he was the most renowned artist of his generation.  

Warhol extended his non-stop workday at the Factory into the evening by shooting celebrities including himself and his entourage hanging out at the various hot clubs (Studio 54 opened April 26, 1977 and closed March 1986), parties, art openings, hotels, restaurants and on the street with the explanation, “I have a social disease. I have to go out every night.” In addition to his art, Warhol kept busy in a variety of ways: magazine and book publishing (“Interview”, “Exposures”, “Popism: The Warhol 60’s”, “America”), endorsing products (Diet Coke, Puerto Rican Rum, Braniff Airlines, “U.S. News & World Report”, Vidal Sassoon, etc.), phoning in his gossip diaries to Pat Hackett (“The Andy Warhol Diaries”), audiocassette taping conversations and videotaping at the studio (anticipating the personal journal in a public arena – blogging), saving the minutiae of everyday life in time capsules, and doing the occasional modeling assignment, and guest acting gig (playing himself as art-celebrity on “Love Boat”). He was also producing cable TV (“Andy Warhol TV”, and “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes”) as well as fashion and music videos. Eight hours of his television work was featured in the upstairs gallery.

Warhol took advantage of his privileged position as world-class celebrity to gain access to these intimate occasions and take photographs without having to “produce the goods”. This switch of recording device (given to him by a collector in 1976) from instant to processed-later roll-film alleviated the celebrity from the self-conscious and time-consuming act of altering any performances that were deemed too honest or transparent or unattractive. These were Andy’s personal pictures taken at social events he was invited to and participating in along with the other glitterati.

Shot by Warhol, (or his designee), and selected by him from his contacts, these never-seen-before-published images were printed in two start-to-finish runs under the artist’s own supervision. Factory habitué and photographer Christopher Makos (mentioned in “The Diaries” at least 25 times) printed the first batch of prints with a filed-out negative carrier creating an active black border framing device interpreting the work without cropping. Terry Morello did the second run with a tighter full-bleed interpretation. Both sets were printed on 8 by 10 inch gelatin silver paper in an edition of one (the accompanying first edition book published on the occasion of the exhibition presents details from the photographs).

The auto-focus, auto-exposure point-and-shoot Minolta SLR camera that Warhol favored produced results that differed from his Polaroids (such as the 1970-1976 images of informal canoodling with friends, exhibited at the “Red Books” show, Pace/MacGill, 2004) because it did not produce instant records that the celebrities could view and respond to. The person posed differently because they would not be expecting instantly to see the resulting image.

With a reassuring nod, smile or murmur like “how fabulous” Warhol could create the perfect reinforcing response to the sitter’s act of being photographed and be able to move more quickly and less intrusively, and to expose more film.

This also allowed him to navigate his chronic social anxiety, giving him full reign to explore his obsessive voyeuristic curiosity. Not coincidentally, he was able to extend his production day into night. Practically every moment he was conscious would be stockpiled and accessed at a later date.

The slightly wider view of the lens of the Minolta SLR over the Polaroid lens carried with it a bit more depth of field and a frame that was rectangular. This allowed Warhol to take in bits and pieces of a sitter’s context. Warhol invites us to join Jagger and Hall partying at Studio 54, Spielberg stretched out on a luxurious bed in an opulent hotel suite, gorgeous Bianca in a generic bathroom, Jean-Michel on a tricked out bicycle on the mean streets of Manhattan or sitting down for dinner at Mr. Chow’s, Truman Capote and Liza Minnelli having a tête-à-tête at Elaine’s, Hockney in front of a miniature stage explaining perspective, Blondie at the Factory on a telephone (with a Capote painting in the background) and Andy himself at the doctor’s in an examining room, nuzzling up to Diana Ross, reclining coyly on a couch or staring into the camera in partial drag in a homage to Man Ray’s 1921 portrait of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy.

Warhol’s portraits deconstruct the illusion of the celebrity who lives in a parallel universe that looks a bit like ours but makes us feel woefully dull by comparison. Anticipating the gossip magazines that feature ‘gotcha’ snapshots of schleppy-looking celebrities over the omnipotent power and fabulousness perpetuated by traditional glamour and celebrity photographers like Annie Liebowitz for “Vanity Fair” or Michael Thompson for “W”, Warhol topples that universe of untouchable perfection in his photographs. His subjects look a lot like us – with problems, with awkward moments and bad hair days – trendy clothes that don’t work with their body type, and images that show us that sexuality is elastic and unexpected. He shows us our icons but in a way that suggests they are part of our family our friends. The high status that these individuals have acquired seems somewhat more attainable through Andy’s lens.

More than anyone in the history of 20th century art, Warhol is credited with removing the distinction between high and low. At “Warhol’s World”, we are immersed right in the center of his oeuvre. Mick, Bianca, and Jean-Michel are available to everyone, as if each were a can of soup of a box of cleaning pads.

Warhol’s visionary gift was his recognition and engagement with the quintessentially American aspects of the cultural landscape. He recognized before any other artist that there had been little examination of our unique fascination and desire for the strong, bold and exciting products of mass production whether that be a can of Coke, an automobile, a gun or a celebrity like Elvis, Marilyn, Mick or Bianca. Warhol had adopted the methods of mass production first by appropriating newspaper and advertising images and then later as his fame rose to embracing the Kodak notion of “You push the button, we do the rest” to make his own version of “readymades” of celebrities who were themselves mass produced.

Bruno Bischofberger has pointed out how, as a commercial artist in 1950s New York, Warhol saw the transition from hand-made graphic concepts into ones where photography played the main role. In the last interview before he died, Warhol commented that photography was one reason why he switched from commercial to fine art. He also famously remarked: “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.”

Up until recently, however, Warhol’s photographic pursuits that were not translated to the canvas have been relegated to secondary status in both the marketplace and in Manhattan Surrogate Court (see appraising the appraisal of the Andy Warhol estate). Clearly a distinction had been made between what was art and what was “merely” photographic. Will “Warhol’s World” open the flood gates bringing his photo-imagery under the umbrella of high art? Certainly Andy’s pure photography archive is his most potent and unexplored legacy. Is this show another instance of the recent blurring of the medium from the world of photography into the larger world of contemporary art – a “de-ghettoizing” of sorts?

 

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