Think Andy Warhol and a few iconic images come to mind. For some, he’s the pop artist who turned Brillo boxes, Tide detergent containers, and Campbell’s soup cans into art. For others he’s a hipster impresario in a shock wig, mumbling eminently quotable platitudes.
But an exhibition exploring Warhol’s photographic legacy tells a more personal story.
One of the beneficiaries of a gift of hundreds of black-and-white prints and color Polaroids taken by Warhol in the 70s and 80s and distributed twenty years after his death by the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Indiana University Art Museum has mounted Shot By Warhol.
After The Factory
The museum has taken pains to reconstruct an interior reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1960s studio in midtown Manhattan, the bastion of cool known as The Factory. There is silver paint on the walls and aluminum foil wrapping the gallery’s columns, but the photos hung in this setting tell a story that postdates the days of the Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
“His whole social circle really changed after the assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968,” explains Nan Brewer, the museum’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper. Solanas shot Warhol at his studio when a script she’d submitted for his consideration was not returned. “After that,” Brewer notes, “his social interactions were often with people who could potentially be his portrait clients.”
In other words, summarizes Brewer, “a more uptown scene.”
I Love The Night Life
In the black-and-white photos Warhol took at celebrity-studded parties in the ’70s and ’80s, we glimpse Liza Minnelli, Martha Graham, and Bianca Jagger, along with all sorts of fabulous types who happened to be at the right place at the right time. It’s a glamorous milieu, one that the rest of us could only glimpse at in the pages of Warhol’s Interview magazine. But in these personal snapshots, which were never meant for exhibition, we can see past the glamor.
In one photo, a woman seated alone at a table cluttered with half-filled glasses stares into space. “Some of it is the lively world of Studio 54,” Brewer concedes, “but often it looks to be more the somewhat staid world of charity banquets and fundraisers.
“Unlike the paparazzi standing outside, trying to sneak a glimpse,” she goes on, “Andy was almost embedded in this society — a celebrity among celebrities — and he was always carrying a camera.”
Hiding In Plain View
The fact that Warhol had access to A-list scenesters, who were often his friends and acquaintances — and that they could be relaxed around him — meant that he was able to yield a photographic result that was strikingly new at the time. In an era long before TMZ and reality TV, America wasn’t used to seeing celebrities looking like regular folks, let alone behaving badly.
Warhol’s eccentric personality lent itself to taking pictures. “He didn’t want to miss anything, but he was strangely shy,” explained Brewer. “He liked having a tool to give him a way to interact.” In the midst of le tout New York, in other words, Andy hid behind his equipment.
I Shoot, Therefore I Am
Whether partying or walking down the street, Andy negotiated his entire existence through the lens. The 150,000 black-and-white negatives Andy shot between 1976 and his death in 1987 serve as a visual diary of each day, whether the subject is a movie star, a hockey game, or a trashcan — all of which turn up here.
“Warhol fashioned a lifestyle in his own character as his artistic production,” Brewer ventures. “These photos document every minute of his life.”
Shot by Warhol juxtaposes his black-and-white snapshots with the second stream of Andy’s photographic production, the Polaroids he took in preparation for the society portraits for which he became known. The go-to-portraitist of the rich and famous in the ’70s and ’80s was equally prolific when it came to shooting his clients, shooting around a hundred Polaroids at a sitting before selecting one to be reproduced for the final portrait. Andy saved the rest, dozens of which are on view here.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
Despite a few highly recognizable faces — a dewy Arnold Schwarzenegger among them — most of the head shots in a case that Brewer has tagged the “Wall of Fame” are unfamiliar to twenty-first century eyes. Take Irma S. Mann, for example, the first female CEO of an international advertising company. In the ’70s and ’80s, having Warhol make your portrait was the indisputable sign that you’d arrived, whether professionally, socially, or financially.
Decades later, the anonymity of many of these faces only seems to underscore Warhol’s famous prediction, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Although the portrait may originally have been commissioned to glorify the subject, he leveraged the traditional genre of portraiture for personal superstardom.
“People would come and see one of Andy Warhol’s portraits even if they didn’t recognize the sitter,” Brewer explained, “because it was a Warhol.”