Jessica Beck is the Milton Fine Curator of Art at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. She has curated many projects, most notably Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body, the first exhibition to explore the complexities of the body, through beauty, pain, and perfection, in Warhol’s practice.
The scholarship and exhibition history of Andy Warhol’s work have broken up his practice into different acts: the celebrated 1960s; the portrait commissions of the 1970s, after he was shot; and the final decade, which in terms of art criticism remains one of the most unresolved. Scholars, too, tend to segment Warhol’s practice by medium, rather than showing the interconnectedness that Warhol created between photography and painting. While the artist’s shooting, by Valerie Solanas in 1968, contributed to a rupture in his intense productivity throughout most of the 1960s, a consistent grammar persisted at the core of his work, a pattern circulating around ideas of instantaneity, a progress toward the new, and an embrace of the moment. Warhol’s practice is fundamentally tied to the use of new technology, the sociopolitical climate, and the popular culture of his time. One might wonder, then, why interest in his work prevails over decades of shifting styles and trends. He made art from his surroundings and created a social practice that involved recording and documenting interactions at parties and in his studio. He let us in on his working methods and set a precedent for our contemporary fixation on recording, posting, and sharing details of our lives with strangers online. Warhol’s principal tools for evading the grip of history were his camera and his use of photography. As a tool for recording, the camera became a means of staving off death and forgetfulness and left a treasure trove of memories and moments that continue to tell stories of his past and to unlock insight into his art.
Photography is in fact the one constant throughout Warhol’s career. Beginning with a Kodak Brownie when he was a boy, Warhol experimented with and collected cameras throughout his life. The Polaroid camera, with its ability to produce a photograph instantly, became a constant companion in the studio, as a tool for his painting process, and at social outings, as a party trick with friends, socialites, and celebrities. While Warhol worked with many different cameras, he gravitated toward models that were easy to use and handle—the Minox 35 EL, for example, which he enjoyed throughout his final decade—or could produce images immediately or quickly, such as the Polaroid Big Shot, which he used primarily in the early 1970s. His enormous archive of unexplored audiocassettes, video diaries of the Factory, television episodes, and the surprisingly revealing yet overlooked early Polaroids expose his constant penchant for recording his life and work. Hundreds of early Polaroids taken between 1961 and 1963 reveal his intimate partnerships, the social nature of his work, and his practical use of photos to generate drawings. They also demonstrate an early signature style that he returned to a decade later, in 1970, when his Polaroid and painting practices resparked. In fact Warhol’s commissioned portraits, a large part of his work throughout the 1970s, began with Polaroids, a technique originating when he drew and traced images from his Polaroids in the early 1960s. The stories embedded in his Polaroids tie the Warhol narrative together—a narrative that sits outside the conventional art history that insists on dividing his practice.
Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera and its film, had conceived of the process during a trip to Santa Fe with his young daughter, who asked why she couldn’t see a photo he had taken of her right away. His invention, one of the first cameras to produce a photographic print more or less immediately—developing time was sixty seconds—was first marketed in 1948, and his hope for it, he said, was that it would offer amateurs “a feeling of personal identification with the world in a way that photography has always hoped to do.”1 This sense of personal identification, and this fascination with seeing and sharing a moment immediately, lie at the very core of much of Warhol’s work. The fact that a Polaroid could be shared gave the process a social aspect, and the camera was democratic: any amateur could perfect its point-and-shoot method, and one click to open the hatch on the back made the printed image appear like a magic trick. By 1962, the Polaroid had become for Warhol a tool of self-portraiture, documentation of domestic gatherings and erotic encounters, and source material for a new abstract drawing process. At the time, the camera was advertised heavily on television and in printed media.
Although the Polaroid company marketed its camera as fast and simple, in the early stages of production the device had one unresolved issue: preserving the print from exposure to light and air. In 1951, black-and-white packages included a new tool, a print coater—a small, wandlike tube soaked in a fixer fluid that gave the image long-term stability. Fixing the film, though, was a messy and smelly process that involved rubbing the print with this pungent solution and then polishing it to remove fingerprints or dust. The archives of the Andy Warhol Museum contain Polaroids from this period that maintain the deep blacks and grays of the print, but others are heavily yellowed or covered with fingerprints, suggesting that they were never fixed after printing and were passed around when wet. Still others were fixed incompletely, so that only parts of the original image remain intact. Given the number of Warhol’s Polaroids showing yellowing and fingerprints, Warhol seems either to have lost his print coater or found using it cumbersome or disagreeable. These qualities might also explain why researchers have so consistently overlooked the nearly three hundred Polaroid prints in the archives. The first major exhibition on Warhol’s photographic practice, Andy Warhol: Photography, at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 1999, omitted these early Polaroids entirely from both the checklist and the catalogue essays. While the scholarship within remains important, it does overlook the early connections between Warhol’s social circles and career aspirations and instant photography.
Warhol’s townhouse at 1342 Lexington Avenue, which he shared with his mother, Julia, was part art storage, part living space, and part salon. In 1962 and 1963, Warhol used a Polaroid Land camera to photograph visitors to his studio—artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist; writers such as Charles Henri Ford, Walasse Ting, and Edwin Denby; curators and art dealers including Henry Geldzahler and Ileana Sonnabend; and his own lovers Ed Wallowitch and John Giorno. In Popism, Warhol’s first autobiography, Warhol recounts visits by collectors and curators and confesses his hopes of courting the gallerist Leo Castelli and his aspirations to fitting in with the rising stars Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. As he shared his earliest silk-screen paintings with many of these art-world insiders, he repeatedly took out his Polaroid Land camera and took photos that he immediately shared with his guests, like a party trick. Denby is pictured smiling widely, reviewing a curling photo fresh from the camera. Art dealer Virginia Dwan and artist Ed Kienholz are photographed on a sofa sharing Warhol’s Polaroids. Castelli and his gallery director Ivan Karp, and artists Larry Poons and Ray Johnson, are all recorded in Warhol’s townhouse with curling Polaroids in their hands. A photograph of Rauschenberg on the couch with Sonnabend records a visit in September of 1962, when Warhol showed Rauschenberg his first silk-screen prints. The visit inspired Rauschenberg’s shift from his painstaking solvent-transfer process—in which, as Warhol and Pat Hackett wrote in Popism, he transferred images “by putting lighter fluid on magazine and newspaper illustrations and then rubbing it onto the paper”—to the more streamlined screen-print technique, medium of some of his most iconic works.2
Warhol used the Polaroid to record these visits but he also took more private pictures with the camera, showing either intimate partners or sexual encounters. These two forms of intimacy are pictured very differently in the photographs. Images of his early lover Wallowitch, for instance, capture a sweetness or shyness between the two; Wallowitch’s photographs of Warhol, similarly, are among those that show him at his most vulnerable. Wallowitch was one of the closest people to Warhol during the artist’s first decade in New York. A photographer himself, and a rising star, he was represented in Edward Steichen’s legendary Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and was the youngest photographer to have work acquired by the same museum. In the early 1950s, he shot strikingly vulnerable and tender photographs of Warhol, his lens often mere inches from the young artist’s face, or positioned above him as he lay on the ground. Wallowitch must have been standing over Warhol, perhaps even straddling his shoulders. As early as 1957, Wallowitch’s photographs became source material for Warhol’s canvases of young children and for drawings of elderly women and men at the automat. The close relationship between the two men might have slipped out of history but for these intimate photographs; Warhol makes very little reference to Wallowitch in The Andy Warhol Diaries or Popism. And while Wallowitch’s lens makes plain the emotional intimacy between the two, Warhol’s Polaroids of Wallowitch are much more distant.
Warhol expressed desire much more overtly in a series of images of men posing on toilets, naked or suggestively unzipping their trousers. The Polaroid was in many ways perfect for the intimacy of closeted eroticism. With its instant process, no contact sheets had to be sent to a developing lab, and desire could be exchanged freely. Warhol’s images of unidentified men urinating, posing with an erection, exposing a bare behind to the camera, or playing suggestively with such props as a glass Coke bottle picture fetish and eroticism directly. There are also photographs of toilets, an object with a particular resonance for closeted homosexual encounters. In the 1950s, gay sex was known to happen in public toilets, in “tearoom trade” as it was known in the United States, or “cottaging” in Britain. The public toilet was a place for gay, single, closeted, black and white men to engage in public sex.3 This connection recurs in the 1970s works shown in Warhol’s first published book of photographs, Exposures (1979).
In many ways Warhol’s early Polaroids of art-world elites, and even his images of toilets, mirror the photographs he chose for Exposures. Originally titled Social Disease, Exposures repeats many tropes of the Polaroids of 1962–63. Reflecting Warhol’s shift of focus in the 1970s from the avant-garde to popular stardom, art-world insiders are swapped out for celebrities, designers, and musicians; the social patterns remain the same. The reference to gay sex also endures. The first lines of the book in many ways reference the nature of disease and risk involved in tearoom trade: Warhol writes, “I have Social Disease. I have to go out every night. If I stay home one night I start spreading rumors to my dogs.”
The early Polaroids reveal Warhol’s burgeoning social circle but also mark a shift in his drawing practice, from his commercially successful blotted-line style to the more abstract, gestural line that he eventually brought to the canvas in paintings such as Coca-Cola (2) and Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato Rice). During this moment of transition, in 1961, Warhol was formulating a language that was no longer directly attached to commissioned advertisement work. This new image language involved a series of gestural lines, a line suggesting abstraction—the dominant approach of the era—and movement. In 1961, Warhol made drawings that he sourced from newspapers and from Wallowitch’s photographs, but he also worked from his own Polaroids to draw shoes, cosmetics, and MJB coffee cans in this new gestural style. A group of the Polaroids from this period reveals a direct connection to these drawings. Mixed in with the nearly three hundred Polaroids of friends, lovers, collectors, and others is a handful of images of still life objects, some showing a Campbell’s soup can with a ripped label, others a pair of men’s shoes set on white paper (with Warhol standing over them), and others a can of MJB coffee. All of these were used as sources for drawings.
There is also a surprising number of Polaroids—twenty-one, nearly three rolls of film—of a striking, dark-haired young woman sitting in a winged-back chair. In many of the photographs her eyes are closed or her head is tilted to the side, but in several this unidentified subject makes direct eye contact with the camera, as shadows catch the corners of the chair, softening and darkening her features. In one of these Polaroids, pen marks trace the outline of her figure, and in another, a white grease pen has been used to extend the open V neck of her dress, dramatizing her cleavage. Warhol turned this Polaroid into a drawing, now in the Andy Warhol Museum, where it has been mislabeled for two decades as a portrait of the actress Natalie Wood. Having made a quick sketch from the Polaroid, Warhol added abstract pencil marks and gestural lines, details pointing to his early interest in using a Polaroid as part of his drawing process and a departure from the blotted line, the signature style of his commercial commissions. Over ten years later, Warhol used the Polaroid yet again to create a new approach to his artistic practice. His use of the Polaroid in his drawing and painting practice, then, started as early as 1961; furthermore, he carried forward this grammar of image-making into his renewed interest in Polaroids as the source for his portrait commissions nearly a decade later.
In 1968, Warhol was shot by Solanas. He underwent long surgery and would suffer physical pain for the rest of his life. After this near-death experience, Warhol stepped away from the canvas and from silk-screen printing for a period. In 1969, in an effort to encourage him to reconnect with painting and produce sellable work, as any good manager is wont to do, Fred Hughes began to encourage him to paint commissioned portraits.4 It was, in fact, the Polaroid Big Shot camera that reinvigorated his painting practice and his return to the canvas. As in his early days, this camera allowed him to make the commission process interactive by sharing the Polaroid with the sitter on the spot. In this way Warhol could make edits with the sitter, making immediate adjustments of pose, hair, makeup, and lighting. This editing in situ also helped him to develop a relationship with the sitter, so that, in a sense, he gained not only a commission but also a lasting social connection to advance his name and career—a process not far from his use of the Polaroid with artists, dealers, and collectors at his townhouse in 1962 and 1963. Further, this new process not only allowed Warhol to create a steady income stream but rejuvenated his connection to the canvas. As in his early use of the Polaroid, the work of the 1970s was again painting that started with the camera.
Commissioned portraits dominated Warhol’s studio practice for nearly a decade and helped him to accrue a roster of society elites and social influencers among his clients. Here, in a similar fashion to his first paintings in 1961 that progressed from an abstract to a clean line, he formulated two styles of painting: one that was more minimal, with a monochrome background and a simple screen-printed photograph, and the other more abstract, with heavy brushstrokes, a range of colors and tonal differences, and at times even the marks and squiggles of the artist’s fingers. As Warhol renewed his painting practice with the Polaroid, he regained creative energy and reestablished his studio practice with new hires, a crew of young men—Ronnie Cutrone, Vincent Fremont, Bob Colacello, and eventually Christopher Makos—who could help him revive his painting, video, and commercial commissions. His habits of the 1970s and 1980s mirror, yet again, many of his earliest pursuits: books, advertising, new media such as video and television, and a near-daily obsession with taking photographs.
The last decade of Warhol’s career was consumed by a habit of photo-taking that paralleled a reinvigorated interest in large-scale painting. In 1976, while on a trip to Bonn with Colacello, Warhol purchased a new camera, the Minox 35EL, according to Colacello “the smallest camera available then that took full-frame 35mm photographs.” This point-and-shoot model, with “a sleek, all-black, James Bond look,” was small enough to fit in his pocket and could be taken everywhere.5 And everywhere is where Warhol took his camera.
During the next eleven years, Warhol took thousands of photographs with his new automatic camera, and his contact sheets present repetitions from the past. Over thousands of contact sheets, Warhol’s grammar and signature lexicon emerge in his focus around social occasions, eroticism, and love. The most photographed subject of these sheets is Warhol’s boyfriend Jon Gould, whom he followed closely with his camera, shooting Gould on the beach, exercising, dancing at parties, eating breakfast. Where Warhol’s earlier photos of Wallowitch had been intimate, however, in these ones the lens rarely got close—and when it did, it often caught Gould with his hand up, pushing the camera back or away. The camera can’t seem to hide the physical tensions between them, or Warhol’s insistence on concealing the intimacies of their relationship. And where earlier he had often shot in his townhouse, during this final decade he rarely photographed at home, in his private living spaces. Where the camera once revealed tenderness, it now seems to call out the walls and barriers Warhol mounted after his life-altering shooting. The world he gives us access to is highly mediated, and centered on his close proximity to the elites of fashion, Hollywood, and the music industry. A tool that once connected him to art-world insiders now became one for protecting his fame and brand.
Photography was central to Warhol’s practice—it was, in fact, the principal conduit of his artistic language and ultimately the link between his drawings and paintings. It opened doors for him in his social life and his professional career; became a crucial means of image-making for him; and gave him a means of self-fashioning that locked in over time, providing his artistic persona with an enduring afterlife. Instead of segmenting his practice into different mediums, different acts, it’s more useful to think of common threads in his work that link the decades into a single play. In some ways Warhol’s consistent use of photography is also the reason for our continued fascination with his painting. That medium has gone through a series of deaths over the last century, and Warhol dabbled with distancing himself from it at certain points, famously proclaiming he had retired from painting in 1970. Ultimately, though, he united painting and photography, often seen as formidable opponents. There is a harmony in his work between the two mediums, between the labored and the instantaneous touch. Warhol was neither a painter nor a photographer—he was both.
1Edwin Land, quoted in Victor K. McElheny, “Edwin Herbert Land, 7 May 1909–1 March 1991,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 146, no. 1 (March 2002), p. 117.
2Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1980), p. 29.
3See Paul B. Franklin, “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History,” Oxford Art Journal 23, no. 1 (2000), pp. 27–29.
4The first portrait that Warhol produced with a Polaroid camera was of art dealer Alexander Iolas. Warhol took Iolas’s portrait in Paris in 1969, using a Polaroid Land camera, then executed seven canvases in early 1970. The portrait of Iolas is Warhol’s first commissioned portrait of the 1970s. See Neil Printz and Sally King-Nero, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 3, Paintings and Sculptures 1970–1974 (New York: Phaidon Press, 2010), pp. 54–55, 72–73.
5Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, 1990 (reprint ed. New York: Vintage, 2014), p. 438.
Artwork © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York