PITTSBURGH — Young men and women recline on their backs, some shirtless, staring at the camera confrontationally, or smoking, aloof. They are often serious and sexy. They are the subjects of Andy Warhol‘s screen tests, where visitors to his studio, the Factory, sat alone with a rolling video camera. The silent footage occupies a large wall at the Andy Warhol Museum, where you can also make your own screen test. Sitting before a camera and under a blaring light for four minutes and 41 seconds, I didn’t know what to do with my limbs or what facial expression to make. Whom was I looking at? I felt painfully inept.
Jessica Beck, a curator at the Warhol Museum, says there is an “uncomfortable encounter with shame and sexuality” in the screen tests. Recording one makes you hyperaware of your body; it sort of felt like I was staring into a mirror, but couldn’t see my own reflection.
The screen tests were an apt prelude to the exhibition My Perfect Body, curated by Beck, which makes plain Warhol’s self-conscious relationship to his own body and fascination with others. I saw the show after walking through the entire museum dedicated to the artist and it’s how it ought to be seen. It seals his work together, from his early fashion designs to his celebrity portraits.
Before the exhibition officially begins, there is a room of glass cabinets filled with Warhol’s prescription drugs, vitamin supplements, wigs, thick-lensed glasses, and plenty of cosmetics. In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the artist writes: “If someone asked me, ‘What’s your problem?’ I’d have to say, ‘Skin.'” From a young age, Warhol — who then went by Andrew Warhola — was anxious about his acne and blotchy skin, which started to lose pigment when he was eight years old. Some people called him “Spot,” or “Andy the Red-Nosed Warhola” (the redness was later attributed to rosacea). His diaries tell of his various appointments with the “pimple doctor,” the crystal doctor, and the plastic surgeon “dying to do” the artist’s face. As he got older, Warhol regularly took collagen injections to smooth away wrinkles. He also began to bald and lost much of his body hair, reputedly after a nervous episode when a love affair fell apart — hence his need for a wig.
My Perfect Body leads with a hallway of photos of Warhol. In one, his hands mask his face; in another, he has colored his nose with dark pigment to make it look smaller and less round. Soon after, we come across Warhol’s “Before and After” print, which was based on an ad for a plastic surgeon and shows the results of a woman’s nose reduction. Several of Warhol’s early anatomical drawings, such as of male genitals, hands, and feet, are inspired by a slew of ads, blaring phrases like “Try Man Power Today” and “Where Is Your Rupture?”
As the exhibition delineates, Warhol either idealizes or uncovers the blemishes and failures of the body, a dichotomy that mirrors what he said of Pop in a 1966 interview: It’s “just taking the outside and putting it on the inside or taking the inside and putting it on the outside.” Sometimes, bodies are purely sculptures, at others they are grotesque objects and vessels for ugly feelings. In the show, we jump from loving ink drawings of naked men, with small, black hearts crawling up their shoulders and backs, to Warhol’s astonishing large-scale prints of car crashes and a woman’s suicide.
In 1968, writer Valerie Solanas attempted to murder Warhol with a gun. He survived, undergoing intense surgery, which left deep scars across his chest and stomach, forcing him to wear corsets for the rest of his life (a colorful array of them is on display). At first deeply ashamed to reveal his deformed body, Warhol eventually posed shirtless for various artists and photographers, famously including Richard Avedon and Alice Neel. Whereas Warhol previously focused his energies on adjusting his looks with cosmetics, plastic surgery, and accessories, after the gun wound, he developed an obsession for bodybuilding. He maintained a regular regimen of riding exercise bikes and lifting weights, and recorded videos with his trainer for Andy Warhol’s TV, his television series that ran from 1980–82. He collected clips of men with bulbous bodies, deeming them nothing less than marvels. “Muscles are great,” he writes in America. “Everybody should have at least one they can show off.”
But I should mention that My Perfect Body is not sensational in its approach. If anything, it provides you with a more nuanced interpretation of Warhol and his work, one that moves beyond the artist as a kind of character or persona.
One of Warhol’s quietest works, “Sleep,” in which he films his friend John Giorno sleeping naked, focusing on one body part at a time, encompasses the artist’s approach to much of his art: a gaze filled with love for others. Giorno writes a fantastic essay in the exhibition catalogue, describing an indelible scene of Warhol drying himself naked after a shower. “He had a beautiful body and a big dick. I was very surprised,” Giorno writes. “What he didn’t see in himself he saw in everybody else … . Whoever attracted him, and potentially every person in the world, had a perfect body.”
In Beck’s interview with art historian Douglas Crimp, he builds on that point: “Yes, Warhol was shy and insecure about his own body, his own appeal, and undoubtedly about his sexual desires and activities. But he made up for it, found outlets in others and in the art he made with and about others.”
It’s easy for us to diagnose, analyze, and glamorize Warhol. On the one hand, he didn’t shy away from feeding people with deliciously frank and gossipy commentary about art and life. He gave the impression of being quite open, but, like any of us, concealed not only parts of his physical body but aspects of his private life. While he identified as gay, his sexuality was not so easily definable; in 1980, he told his biographer that he was a virgin — a claim that would be challenged. “Fantasy love is much better than reality love,” he said. Likewise, his art is populated by fantasy bodies.
Near Warhol’s collection of medical prescriptions, the contemporary artist Adam Milner has installed his own glass case of what he calls “remains.” They are a mix of Milner’s, Warhol’s, and strangers’ possessions, the distinction often blurry. They include the last (unwashed) pair of underwear Warhol wore, an ex-boyfriend’s wisdom tooth, braided hair, fake eyelashes, and bones. The takeaway seems to be that we all have bodies, with similar parts, that are equally gross, attractive, and sexual. Our relationship to our bodies is a strange admixture of love and shame, curiosity and disdain. But somehow, leaving the museum, I felt the admiration of Warhol’s gaze, as though I, too, had a perfect body.