LOS ANGELES — The name Andy Warhol is synonymous with Pop art, a movement often written off as apolitical and shallow in its engagement with American culture. Reflections of this assumption are all contained in Little Red Book #296, an album of 18 images that was recently gifted to Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art and makes up just one aspect of the exhibition Fever & Flash: Pop in the 1970s, curated by Lauren Ross and opening this weekend. At first glance, the Polaroids in this book appear to be a collection of amateur snapshots that could have been taken by my Jewish grandmother Edna during one of her classic family dinner parties. But looking longer, this much becomes clear: Warhol was far more calculated and way less sentimental than most people’s grandmas. He didn’t throw the party. He went to it.
In 1971, Warhol picked up the Polaroid Big Shot, which was designed specifically for taking portraits. He took the camera with him everywhere, mastering its mechanical shutter and square format, and making portraits of his social world. His Red Book Polaroid series, from 1974–75, comprises 36 photographs that he later used as sources for his large-scale screenprints. But his Little Red Books came before that. They are collections of images that precede the bigger moments. And there are hundreds of them. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts gifted Little Red Book #22 to the Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has Little Red Book #138 in its possession. Tulsa got #296.
The 18 Polaroids in this little red book were shot in 1972, the same year that NASA began developing a space shuttle program; the first woman and African American sought to run for president; the Watergate break-in took place; Apollo 17, the last US mission to the moon, launched and then returned to Earth; and the Vietnam War (and protests against it) continued. This is not what we see in Warhol’s portraits, however; instead, they document places he went and people he wanted to see or be seen with. He did borrow the albums’ title from Mao Tse-tung’s propaganda collection of the same name, a seemingly political move. But these Warholian little red books take people from the artist’s world and flatten them into a type of Pop art propaganda that reflects back the artist’s social life. Little Red Book #296 is a neat compilation of New York socialites such as John McKendry, Metropolitian Museum of Art curator of prints and photographs; Vincent Fremont, vice president of Andy Warhol Enterprises; socialite/model/actress and food writer Maxime de la Falaise; Adrianna Jackson, who lent her New York apartment for Warholian social gatherings; and Interview magazine editor Rosemary Kent, among others.
The political events that took place in 1972 are not pictured in this edition of Warhol’s glossy world. They’re ghosts lingering in the background and lurking beneath the surface of the mirror, occurring on another plane, past the beautiful photographic sheen of Warhol’s Polaroid-snap-happy routine. Where these political and pop worlds collide is not apparent in the pictures that Warhol shot. Could it have been part of the dinner party conversation? It’s quite possible, but we’ll never know for sure. Today, we only have the mirror.
Fever & Flash: Pop in the 1970s runs September 14, 2014–March 15, 2015 at the Philbrook Downtown (116 E M B Brady St, Tulsa, Oklahoma).
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