Andy Warhol left much more than his iconic paintings and films behind when he died; he was constantly making something and saving everything. Sifting through it all, like panning for gold, has proven irresistible to institutions and commercial galleries. While the Whitney Museum celebrates his long career with a major retrospective, two smaller New York shows cull from Warhol Factory closets important ephemera that illuminate his body of work and his relationship with art making. At the New York Academy of Art, a selection from around forty years of Warhol’s drawings offer a glimpse of the unique nature of his talents, and a show of his Polaroids at the Kasmin Gallery — glossy, vivid pictures of the swells Andy loved and surrounded himself with — represents the better known, mechanistic part of Andy’s craft and the unapologetic, money-making apparatus of the Factory. Between them, Warhol the person and Warhol the art industrialist from Pittsburgh are on display, his hand completely erased in the photographs, but revealed in its most intimate moments with the drawings.
An innate artistic voice, raw and unaffected, resides in Warhol’s drawings. In them he stands completely naked — figuratively speaking — shorn of the costumes and inventions, the cameras, the silkscreens, the magazine, and the fame. They’re a side of him and his craft he kept mostly to himself (except for the very few people he was closest to) part of his art practice, but also a record of his day-to-day existence. We’re familiar with the drawings now, thirty-two years after his death, but at the time he made them they were private.
In Andy Warhol: By Hand, we see how Warhol moved fluidly back and forth between pencil, pen and ink, blotted ink, graphite, and even magic marker, in travel sketches and portraits, still lifes, and life drawing. The exhibition, arranged more like an index than a chronology, has one grouping of nine ballpoint pen sketches from the early 1960s, in which a series of disembodied feet and legs show off Warhol’s instinct for simplicity, and his quick, decisive decision making. But they reveal the transgressive and humorous Warhol too, with those feet just as expressive as any artist’s study of hands. In “Nude Lower Torso” (c. 1957), Warhol suspended a pair of hands in space, just behind the back of an ass and legs, letting our imaginations fill in the arms, back, and shoulders of the model. If one idea is repeated over and over again in the exhibition, it’s Andy’s frugality: how sparing he is with an explanation, revealing his clear understanding that less is more interesting. There’s also a guilelessness about this drawing and many of the others, divorced from Warhol the artist-cum-capitalist.
Travel sketches from a 1956 trip to Asia are equally economic and charming. A cluster of small triangles and squares along a pencil-thin shoreline are all you need to recognize Hong Kong from the mountains above and behind the city and harbor. In a few gem-like pictures from his stop in Cambodia, the “A.W.” he initialed the drawings with match the “A” and “W” of Angkor Wat in his captions. It’s easy to imagine young Andy, sitting on a stone in the humid jungle, discovering the coincidence, and the graphic designer in him playing around with it.
His now ubiquitous drawings are recognizable from a mile away — the curly-cues, almond eyes, pursed lips, the subtly sputtering line and jagged edges of the earliest work, and the exquisite confidence in the long gestures of his last, traced pieces — and though there are few revelations at the Academy, it’s a compelling collection. An insipid question asked for decades about his drawings and his distinct hand — does his jaunty line somehow reveal his homosexuality? — now sounds the same as stereotyping someone for his “gay voice” or how he dresses. His sexuality does come through in the show loud and clear, however, in the content of the homoerotic imagery, as opposed to any particular style of drawing.
The Academy included a lion’s share of intimate pictures of individual men that Andy drew — nude and clothed — from life, casually during an evening together, after or before sex, across a cafe table, formal studies from life drawing sessions. There are just enough cocks on the walls to drive home the point that Andy was gay, but the knowledge that many more exist makes the Academy seem a bit timid in this regard. Part of Warhol’s allure in 2019 is his having flouted so many barriers — the strictures in what then constituted fine art and those of American society — with heroic chutzpa. When he was young and on the rise in New York, being gay was strictly illegal, and the work hanging in galleries, Abstract Expressionism in particular, was primarily made by one man or woman, a handful of brushes, and a huge canvas. (It’s well known how Andy took it on the chin from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg about how both he and his work were more open than they about being gay and John Giorno confirmed this in a recent panel discussion at the NYAA.) Warhol’s adventurousness, ambition, and curiosity are just as evident as his sexual preferences in these drawings.
This exhibition comes full circle with Warhol’s tracings. A massive, brown, epidiascope became his tool of choice for projecting compositions he wanted to capture by hand using graphite on sheets of paper taped to the wall of his studio. In the 1970s, Andy traced Mick Jagger from acetates made from the same Polaroid the painted portrait was derived from, just as he did with a rather menacing handgun, a transvestite from the Ladies and Gentleman series, and an exquisite, never before exhibited drawing of a woman nursing a child. But he also traced at the start of his career, outlining imagery he liked, presumably as a kind of exercise. The show includes examples of these: children and families lifted directly from the pages of Life Magazine in the 1950s.
Warhol’s drawings survive as a visual journal far more revealing than the trivial (but amusing) Diaries published just after his death, and they remain a sort of pure example of Warholian self-expression, the musings of the dreamer sans technology. They also link him to the great tradition of the past, that of an artist carrying a notebook, stopping, looking and sketching what they see, grabbing images and memories by drawing them. During his lifetime, however, Andy, just like the culture at large, replaced his pencil and paper with a camera.
Photography became Warhol’s wellspring. Every iconic work he made thereafter, including his films, in some way count on darkroom chemistry. Polaroids have a specific role from the early ’70s up to his death in 1987. He used the instant pictures as preliminary sketches for most of his paintings, from the Hammer and Sickle series, to the knives, Guns, dollar signs, Fiesta Pigs and Myths. During the last seven years of his life, when I worked for him at Interview Magazine, Polaroids always lay scattered on the floor or on his desk: dozens of head and shoulder shots he’d taken of an artist or celebrity friend for a painted portrait, or for one of the many commissions the Factory team solicited that kept the operation afloat. (Painted portraits then cost $25,000 for one or $40,000 for a pair.) It’s safe to say that Andy, a veteran marksman with the “Big Shot” model (Polaroid’s product name) he favored, always got the picture he wanted right at the start. But an overflow of extra images, and the time it took to take them, gave the sitter a longer audience with the master and conveyed the sense of Andy’s having labored over the work. It was good customer service.
Kasmin chose well, with twenty-five significant Polaroid images currently in one of the gallery spaces. Much about them is spellbinding: their size, like precious miniatures, so small you have to walk up and stare them right in the face; the smooth radiance and peculiar colors of the Polaroid chemistry; the subjects themselves and their places in cultural history. There’s Debbie Harry in an elegant frame, emitting all her punk appeal; Bianca Jagger with her trademark scowl; the art dealer Pat Hearn, as glamorous as any movie star; Keith Haring in the arms of his partner Juan Dubose and vice versa; Robert Mapplethorpe, the grinning delinquent; Dolly Parton, made up for a party but looking more like she’d just been arrested. And there are eight self-portraits of Andy himself, experimenting with light and shadow, mugging for his own camera, fooling around with it like a teenager. They’re confections filled with everything Warhol: beauty, celebrity and perfect control, with hints of irony, banality, and detachment, unique works of art but also artifacts of a time — a place and a vital artistic community now mostly dust except for the work left behind.
Andy Warhol: By Hand; Drawings 1950s – 1980s, curated by Vincent Freemont and David Kratz, continues at the New York Academy of Art (111 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 10. Andy Warhol; Polaroid Portraits, continues at Kasmin Gallery (297 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 2.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.