Story posted February 02, 2010
In 2007, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art received 159 Polaroid photos by Andy Warhol taken in the 1980s, which were donated by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as part of a wide-ranging bequest of 28,500 Warhol photos to colleges and museums around the country.
A selection of those photographs is on exhibition at the Museum's Becker Gallery through April 4, 2010, where they hang beside a savagely expressive self-portrait by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, on loan from an alumnus (Pre-Agrav, 1984, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of Thomas A. McKinley, class of 2006, and family.).
Bowdoin College Museum of Art Director Kevin Salatino took writer Selby Frame through the gallery for a personal tour of these fascinating portraits. Many of the sitters were celebrities passing through Warhol's New York studio, The Factory, in the 1980s.
Q: The novelty factor of Polaroid portraits is certainly lost in an age of cell phone photos and digital photos. What is the value of these portraits? Do they become valuable simply for the Warhol stamp at the bottom? What makes them art?
KS: Well, we've been having that argument since Duchamp turned a urinal upside down and hung it on a wall. If the artist calls it art, it's art. In the case of Warhol, what I find interesting about these images is what they tell us about celebrity and Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. The Polaroid is the perfect medium for this. They’re about the instantaneousness of celebrity as expressed through the first form of instant photography – the Polaroid. Warhol took pictures of enormous numbers of visitors who came through, both celebrities and nobodies. You'll find more non-celebrities here, but for Warhol everybody was a celebrity. Most of these he used as studies for commissioned silkscreen portraits, but they’ve attained a certain autonomy over time, becoming works of art themselves.
A lot of late Warhol has been dismissed for a long time as being inferior to his earlier work, but it's being reassessed now. And these Polaroids fall into the category of those things being reassessed. That notion of reproducibility that we see in the multiple photographs of many of the sitters, as well as the idea of instantaneity, is very much the Warhol ethos -- one that goes back to the very beginning. It's part of an endlessly flowing stream throughout his career.
Q: Many of these faces are almost expressionless, which is sometimes amplified by white makeup. What do you think Warhol was going for in the way he photographed them?
KS: I think the white makeup gives them a kind of Kabuki mask quality. It also may be a reference to drug use, cocaine being the drug of choice in 1980s New York. That idea of a mask is really essential to Warhol's artistic endeavor. His subjects aren't laughing, they look rather serious, serene. But if you look at them closely you see there actually is personality behind them. Sometimes it's exaggerated because of that cake white makeup, which can seem mime-like or clownish.
Q: What's your personal favorite image in the show?
KS: I'm drawn to Jane [Fonda]. It's all about her hair. She has this extraordinary halo of big '80s hair framing her face. I love Fonda because she was so much in the public sphere in the '80s, between her famous exercise videos, her acting, marrying Ted Turner, the memory of her controversial political activism. And she also really knows how to look at a camera. I'm amazed she allowed him to take her picture in that thick white makeup. I'd love to know what he told her he was after, although I suspect she was game for anything.
Q: The large, skull-like self-portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat that dominates the center of the exhibition is in such stark contrast to the small, contained Warhol portraits. What do these works say to each other?
KS: First of all, we’re very lucky to have a major Basquiat painting on loan from the family of an alumnus. And we were recently given a large group of Warhol photographs from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Pairing these two artists was obvious since they were close friends and collaborators during the '70s and '80s in New York. Their relationship was a fraught one, but mutually influential, and Warhol was a great champion of Basquiat’s.
But they also converge in a way that reflects both the style of the art and the artists. Basquiat’s painting, like Warhol’s photographs, is a form of portraiture, in this case self-portraiture. Basquiat’s painting is completely expressionistic, its brushstroke extravagant, its emotion raw. In contrast, the Warhols are anti-expressionistic, their faces devoid of emotion. But both artists were so centrally involved with the notion of celebrity. Basquiat, who dies at the age of 27, is really at the heart of the Studio 54 celebrity scene, excessive drug use, partying. Their pairing is as much about celebrity as it is about the art.
Q: What would you like viewers to take away from this exhibition?
KS: I'd like them to get a sense of what the New York art scene was like in the ‘80s. It's a remarkable moment that's easy to make light of now, and yet it was in many ways predictive of today’s art scene. The market was beginning to take over and Warhol exemplifies the whole market-driven art world. Basquiat, who was a wonderful artist, was destroyed by it. He had his own demons, but the demands that celebrity in the market placed on a very fragile personality drove him to what was essentially a suicide.
If viewers take away anything it's that often under the worst kind of pressure, great art can be produced. And in the context of Warhol we see what at the time would have been viewed as primarily commercial art -- but it's ultimately about more than this. Warhol is interested in the idea of seriality, of reproducibility, of instantaneity, of the cheapness and brevity of fame. It's work that’s meant to be cheap, mass-produced, which is the great irony, of course, since he's become the most expensive artist in the world.
All photogrphs by Andy Warhol
Polacolor ER on paper
4 1/4 x 3 3/8 (10.8 cm x 8.57 cm)
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts