Andy Warhol Photography: 1967-1987 @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A two venue exhibition, hung against white walls, and filling the gallery spaces at West 20th and West 24th Streets.

The following works have been included in the show:

West 20th Street

  • 6 Polaroid prints, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1984, each 4×3 inches
  • 1 collage (3 prints), 1984, 18×16 inches
  • 16 stitched gelatin silver prints (4 or 6 panels), 1977, 1980, 1976-1986, 1986-1987, 1987, 11×14, 28×21, or 27×21 inches (or reverse)
  • 13 gelatin silver prints, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 8×10 inches (or reverse)
  • 4 Polaroid prints, 1982, each 4×3 inches
  • 3 Polaroid prints, 1977, 1978, each 4×3 inches
  • 6 black and white Polaroid prints, 1976, each 5×8 inches
  • 1 Polaroid print, 1982, 4×3 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1983, 10×8 inches
  • 2 Polaroid prints, 1980, each 4×3 inches
  • 1 Polacolor R274 print, 1980, 4×3 inches
  • 1 Polacolor type 108 print, 1980, 4×3 inches
  • 9 Polaroid prints, 1977, 1980, 1986, each 4×3 inches
  • 3 black and white films, silent, each 3 minutes, 1965, 1966

West 24th Street

  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1987, each 10×8 inches
  • 49 Polaroid prints (hung as single grid), 1976, 1977, 1980, each 4×3 inches
  • 7 Polaroid prints (hung as series), 197701978, each 4×3 inches
  • 1 set of 4 Polaroid prints (matted together), 1974, each 4×3 inches
  • 2 Polaroid prints, 1974, each 4×3 inches
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1983, 1984, each 10×8 inches
  • 12 Polaroid prints, 1971-1985, each 4×3 inches
  • 6 Polaroid prints, 1980, 1981, each 4×3 inches
  • 34 gelatin silver prints, 1980-1986, each 10×8 inches (or reverse)
  • 2 Polaroid prints, 1978, each 4×3 inches
  • 5 photobooth strips (4 images, 3 images, or 2 images printed together), 1963, 1966, 1967, 8×2, 6×2, or 4×2 inches
  • 3 collages (consisting of 9 prints, 14 prints, and 19 prints respectively), 1984, 221×15, 22×20, or 22×28 inches

(Installation shots for both venues below.)

Comments/Context: When Andy Warhol’s artistic story is told, and it’s still getting told often, even several decades after his death, his photography is hardly ever prominently featured as a stand alone aspect of his work. And while nearly any retrospective visitor can see that Warhol liberally used photographs as the source material for his silk-screened paintings, the depths and contours of that photographic interest remain surprisingly underappreciated.

The fact is Warhol was a prolific photographer. His love affair with photography began with photobooth strips in the early 1960s, and quickly morphed into something much more manic as he snapped away with his Polaroid instant camera. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he made countless Polaroid portraits and test shots of friends, celebrities, commissioned portrait sitters, and himself, as well as carefully setting up still life arrangements and posed nudes. When he was given a 35mm camera by his Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann in 1977, he added black-and-white photography to his arsenal, taking piles of party pictures, candids, and even street photographs, some of which he then physically stitched together in repetitive grids similar to some of his paintings. In January of 1987, he had his first (and only) show of his photography at Robert Miller Gallery, but then died just six weeks later, so we’ll never know exactly what plans he had for making photography a more visible part of his practice.

Warhol left behind a monumental trove of photographs, and roughly a decade ago, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Warhol Foundation, groups of hundreds of photographs were donated to museums all over the country (the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase got one such cluster and subsequently had a show of the work that was reviewed here.) This two-venue gallery show goes further than many of those “recent gift” shows went, and tries to organize Warhol’s photographic output into a comprehensive body of work with clearer structure.

One of the smart curatorial decisions that has been made here is underplaying the celebrity angle. Warhol’s Polaroids of movie stars, musicians, artists, and other famous people are perhaps his best known photographic works, especially the women Warhol posed with overwhitened faces and red lips to heighten the visual contrast. And while we do get one wall that features Polaroids of Debbie Harry, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar (with a basketball), Grace Jones, and Rudolf Nureyev, among others, it doesn’t dominate the proceedings in any way; in fact, these images (or better yet, artifacts) are made less prominent than the rest of his Polaroid output.

In this install, Warhol’s Polaroids are generally arranged thematically by subject matter. While his flowers and champagne glasses aren’t hugely memorable, many of the arrangements of shoes and knives are much more complex, and his bananas, crosses, and variations on a hammer and sickle all have more graphic energy than we might have expected. A huge grid of images dives deeper into Warhol’s examinations of bodies, particularly those of men. All of these studies crop out the heads, leaving the lines and curves of anonymous flash lit torsos, butts, and erect cocks; seen as a typology, we see Warhol tuning poses, rotating angles, and constantly rethinking the formal qualities of these bodies. A nearby series goes one step further in explicitness, documenting a man giving a blowjob, but Warhol isn’t able to make much of visual interest from the encounter. Another typology provides a useful sampler of Warhol’s extensive self-portraiture, from the now-classic fright wig getup to various less polished looks anchored by sunglasses, wigs, and everyday clothing, reiterating that self-portraiture (and visual identity) were consistent and recurring artistic interests for Warhol across the years.

A small number of collages from the mid 1980s find Warhol reconsidering his Polaroids, and multiplying them out into compositions that have an almost Cubist sensibility. Portraits of William Burroughs and Keith Haring (both accompanied by models) are allowed to repeat and overlap, like a time sequence or a cinematic recursion. A still life of an umbrella is more additive, building up a image from multiple supporting parts.

Warhol’s gelatin silver prints are consistently less notable, but standout pictures have been uncovered here and there attesting to the fact that he was constantly shooting and adapting his eye to the medium. An entire wall of portraits of men (both named and unnamed), from Fire Island, Montauk, and other beach locales, are filled with an undercurrent of voyeuristic desire, but don’t rise to the level of durable interest. Some of his found arrangement images, like a telephone on a side table, a bunch of holiday cards, or a crowded table setting, are better, his interest in the relationships and proportions of graphic elements coming through more strongly.

It was when Warhol took these black and white photographs and stitched them together in groups of 4 or 6 identical prints that the compositions got much more innovative – he stepped out from behind the viewfinder and started to think about the physicality of the prints. This show includes more than a dozen of these stitched works, and while not all of them are best of breed, seeing so many of these now hard-to-find works in one place is a treat. The strongest of these constructions have visual punch that often comes from light/dark contrast, bold shapes, or graphic lettering – a male nude figure bent over, a table of items for sale, a billboard, a pair of construction workers working on a sidewalk, or a shadowy hotel lamp. They show Warhol methodically thinking about how repetition functions aesthetically, and how certain images gain force from close proximity multiplication.

As samplers go, this is the most thorough and satisfying Warhol photography review any of us is likely to see outside of a major museum. While its representative selections are in some sense limited to those works still available for sale (and not already in public or private collections), it still does a credible job of communicating Warhol’s passion for photography and the many ways he explored (and extended) its possibilities.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $8500 to $150000. Warhol’s photographs can be regularly found in the secondary markets, with prices ranging between $2000 and $420000 in recent years, the price for the Polaroid portraits often influenced by the relative fame of the person pictured.

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