From the standpoint of the 1970s, it is hard to imagine that even Andy Warhol, an artist whose work so profoundly predicted the obsessions and economies of the cultural thoroughfare, could have envisioned the fate of still photography in the 21st Century. Once a medium whose mechanics famously robbed painting of its journalistic credence and abolished the authorial hand from the creation of the image, the printed photograph has magically transformed back into a precious, idiosyncratic object. The discrete, paper-bound photograph has, in other words, achieved the privileged “aura” of painting. It has become a unique thing in today’s vaporous, visual onslaught of digital information. Ironically, though, Warhol’s photographs always were things. While his choice of camera—the Polaroid or the latest 35mm point-and-shoot—belied his interest in jettisoning any technical proficiency (in the same way that the screenprint neutralized the mastery of the brush stroke), Warhol was first and foremost an artist who relied on the camera as a personal recording device. While his paintings largely repel the human presence, his photographs solicit and revere them. The famous myth about Warhol coyly claiming that he wasn’t even in the factory studio when many of his canvases were produced smoke-screens an artist who relied heavily on human contact, who in a sense needed his eye to be present and engaged so much that he often called the Sony camera strapped around his neck his “date” at parties. Warhol’s notorious cult of personality serves as a reminder of how fascinated and focused he was on personality in the first place. His corpus trades on his being there, on valuing his own perspective, on the root or constructed character of his subjects, which he glamorized, lampooned, or heroicized based on his own evaluation. Warhol’s own photographs undermine the popular notion of Warhol as blank agent.
The Jim Hedges collection of Andy Warhol photographs is composed of two distinct inventories of the artist’s photographic output. The first are his iconic color Polaroids of celebrities and society figures, factory favorites and freaks. The second, little known and never exhibited, are a suite of black-and-white 8x10s that are almost diaristic in proposition, detailing personal trips and intimate encounters with breath-taking lyricism. Together they etch with dramatic dimension a side of the artist that is lost in his more baronic screenprint studies. Of the former, these close-up, background-free, unremittingly direct portraits of the period’s bold-faced names are often misrepresented as mere source work for his screenprint portraits (which, were, frankly Warhol’s bread and butter throughout the 1970s and 80s, and it doesn’t take much market deduction to comprehend why the profiteers of the screenprints would prefer to disregard the simple Polaroids in favor of the “original” grandiose canvases). Among the seductive role-call of celebrities found here are John Lennon, Sylvester Stallone, Carolina Hererra, Dennis Hopper, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, along with New York City trannies, friends in drag, and even somber, black-shadowed Polaroids of Warhol himself. To be sure, Warhol’s endless intrigue in the pomp and power of fame gets full play here. When a face is so culturally lionized and worshipped, there is no need to help the viewer along with an indication of who, where, or when. Each subject is wrenched out of time, existing in a perfect white vacuum almost reminiscent of imperial Roman busts. In one sense, each individual shot is a fetishistic prize, a compendium of desire, adulation, allure, which gives a sexual frisson in owning and observing this piece of fame. At the same time, Warhol starkly manages to humanize each sitter, reducing him or her to size,
weeding out the elaborate trappings of the limelight until there is the haunting sense of a showdown between the persona and the candid mortal staring piteously into Warhol’s lens. As in all of Warhol’s best work, the mix of building up and breaking down, of humor and sorrow, untouchable and all-too-touched transience infiltrate these portraits. Pointedly, many of these Polaroids were marked in the lower corner by Warhol with the embossing “TKTK.” In one of the many inversion ironies of Warhol’s productions, if several of these Polaroids were ultimately used as the basis of screenprint portraits or Interview Magazine covers, it is these final painterly renditions that are ultimately reproducible, endlessly repeatable, and easily disseminated. The single, stamped Polaroid alone exists as the un-reproducible piece in the process. The photograph of the Polaroid camera offers no negative on which to reprint. These stand-alone images represent Warhol’s gesture—if it can be called that—in his technique. He is there, on the other side of the camera, inches from his sitter, plying and encouraging and finding his own judiciously angle. The quotidian, democratic presence of the Polaroid camera and paper itself is what announces these images as the antithesis of the Hollywood headshot and the work of a human hand.
Warhol was one of the most ravenous social animals of the second half of the 20th Century. It is nearly impossible to strip his artistic contribution from the whirlwind of clubs, soirees, social connections, factory goings-on, and a protracted longing to be at the eye of glamour and gild. The second half of the collection, the black-and-white 8x10s shot on a TK camera, covers much of Warhol in motion, a roving inquisitor of the 1970s and 80s scene he largely birthed. In several shots, Warhol can be found sidling up to Yoko Ono, TK, and TK, or TKTKTK. Not enough can be made of his hungry obsession, documented in these reportage-style shots that would become a provocative photographic style of its own in art and fashion decades later, in capturing his visitations with the power players of the cultural elite. It served as his barometer of success as well as his inspiration and preferred client base. But alongside these public displays are frozen deeply personal moments, where the camera catches the trajectory of Warhol’s emotions, love and beauty, romance and friendship. These photographs are startling accents in the Warhol vocabulary, as much for their formal brilliance as for the humanity that underwrites them. One shot of a beach in Montauk, where the artist kept a second home, revels in the sporadic pattern of footprints, as if the image functions as a corollary to his famous painting of calibrated dance diagrams. In another, a translucent lingerie nightgown hangs from clothespins and sways mournfully in the wind. Several images glimmer Warhol’s hope for love, whether indirectly by way of the historic Paramount Pictures archway, which to the abstract audience could be read as Warhol honoring his beloved stars of the studio system, or for the knowing, a silent tribute to his boyfriend Jon Gould, who worked there; or directly, in the shape of a heart scooped out of the snow on a skiing trip in Colorado and framing Gould who seems to be walking away from the emblem. These photographs are not the work of a disinterested mind who felt that making art required merely pressing a button.
They showcase a furious, poetic eye who knew that a camera could celebrate the famous and also preserve the simple, silent corners of the world where a real interaction could be made.
— Christopher Bollen