What, one might ask, remains to be said of Warhol? This perennial darling of the art gallery and the auction house, so irreverent and unpredictable in his own time, increasingly registers as tame, tasteful, and non-threatening in our own. Yet Andy Warhol’s Photographs, a small, focused exhibition at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, reaffirms the artist’s bracing vitality against the backdrop of his commoditized, commercialized myth.
A 2008 gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the exhibition’s 105 color and 52 black-and-white photographs hint at what the curators describe as Warhol’s “compulsive use of the medium,” both as prefatory sketch and documentary vehicle. Warhol embraced photography as early as the 1950s, when appropriated photos often served as the basis for his advertising and portrait work. The show’s images, however, date from 1970 onward, when Warhol discovered and became enamored of Polaroid’s SX-70 Big Shot camera. The resulting flood of color snapshots, a mere sampling of which are on view here, were integral to Warhol’s larger creative process. Yet seen today, and installed as they are at RISD in thought-provoking clusters, they acquire a fascination all their own as surreptitious character studies—absorbing, elusive, yet resolutely open-ended.
Wearing the guise of offhand snapshots, Warhol’s color images enact a cat-and-mouse game of obfuscation and revelation. Particularly telling is the obvious use of heavy makeup, whose implications of performance, masking, and premeditation challenge the snapshot’s connotations of candor. Thus in Maria Shriver (1978), Dorothy Blau (1982), and Pia Zadora (1983), chalky faces and red lips defy the viewer’s searching gaze. In fact the direct, unblinking stare of Warhol’s subjects, who are framed head-on in direct confrontation with the camera, is initially more withholding than revealing. “Make no mistake,” these portraits seem to say, “this is a controlled, stage-managed encounter.”
Indeed, but who is the stage manager? To a significant extent, each sitter’s presence becomes less an assertion of individual identity than an inscrutable amalgam of performance and manipulation—by the photographer as well as by the subject. The images conflate illusion and authenticity, self-possession and exploitation; wearing the depersonalizing mask of artifice, they enlist the simplest and most informal of photographic mechanisms—the instant camera—to surprisingly complex and provocative effect.
Commenting on his subjects’ feelings about the Polaroid film shoots—and they were, in fact, formal shoots—Warhol remarked, “They like it, even though it’s painful—bright lights, the flashcubes. I try to make everybody look great.” This quote, featured prominently alongside the show’s images, acquires a pointed if ambiguous significance. In one respect, Warhol’s statement underlines the staged nature of the images; in another, it proclaims the artist’s supposedly straightforward intention in creating them. Yet, like so much else in Warhol’s life and work, the apparent invariably gives way to something deeper and darker—a sense of meaning and intent that is disconcertingly opaque.
Here, that “something” seems bound to the underlying nature of the imaged identity and, more specifically, to a sense—subtly yet cogently expressed in these portraits—that this identity is inherently fragile, premised on a needy vulnerability. In submitting to the “painful” demands of the photo shoot, Warhol’s subjects trust that the artist will “make them look great”; the artist essentially becomes the “maker” of his subjects’ visual selves, which are conjured and validated through the artist’s camera. Given this context, the portrait series Mrs. Carlo Bilotti and Daughter (1980) becomes especially interesting. Mrs. Bilotti and her adolescent daughter are framed side by side, the former wearing the ever-present heavy makeup. While the mother stares directly into the camera, the daughter, in each of the four shots, directs her gaze to some point outside the frame. Despite—or perhaps because of—her youth, the daughter maintains a powerful integrity of self. By refusing to acknowledge the camera, the girl declares, however unconsciously, an essential personal autonomy; her presence conveys an innocent inscrutability that deflects any attempt to read her internal life.
Warhol’s Polaroid snapshots reveal a formality and degree of deliberation that are, considering the medium, subversive—the tossed-off snapshot becomes the ambiguously layered portrait; the instantaneous Polaroid records the strategically prepared sitting. Meanwhile, black-and-white images such as People on the Street (ca. 1980), captured using a 35mm camera and printed using the traditional gelatin silver process, convey both an of-the-moment immediacy and a subtle aesthetic awareness.
Significantly, the exhibition notes that “while the Polaroids tended to turn everyone into a glamorous Warhol icon, the black-and-white images…tended to make everyone ordinary.” It is this very ordinariness that yields a striking poignancy, and the apparent absence of the artist’s hand foregrounds the sheer dynamism of his subjects. Thus in Keith Haring, Juan Dubose, and Joe Deitrich (ca. 1980), a series of three shots, the camera becomes an unobtrusive observer of life being lived, and the photograph becomes a testament to the careless youth and fleeting beauty of its subjects.
Gazing at this image, the viewer registers a sense of time collapsing, as the young men’s offhand vitality coincides with the viewer’s retrospective awareness of imminent tragedy—AIDS would claim first Dubose, then Haring, by decade’s end. This casual image thus becomes a kind of paradoxical memento mori—it recalls an irretrievable past yet exists in a pure present, one that defies both past and future. Such ambiguity is the unassuming, utterly compelling through-line of Warhol’s photographs. It is also, perhaps, the most compelling proof of the artist behind the myth.
Andy Warhol’s Photographs is on view at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence through June 29.