Selected Negatives: Warhol's New York, 1984
Highlighted images taken by Andy Warhol around New York City in 1984, from the Cantor Arts Center's collection of almost 130,000 negative frames.
Text written by Peggy Phelan, The Denning Family Chair and Director, Stanford Arts Institute, and Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies and English. Phelan co-curated the exhibition, Contact Warhol: Photography Without End, September 29, 2018 – January 6, 2019, organized by the Cantor Arts Center.
Go to the Cantor Arts Center Collection online to search the complete collection of Andy Warhol's negatives, including ca. 130,000 high resolution individual frames.
All images © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. These images may not be reproduced without the express written consent of The Andy Warhol Foundation.
Remarkably, the digital archive as a whole reveals Warhol’s enormous range as a portrait photographer. The aesthetic and commercial success of his large-format silkscreen portraits of celebrities in close-up established his formidable reputation as a maestro of the multiple and a brilliant colorist. However, the spontaneous snapshots of people that populate his contact sheets reveal another Warhol altogether. Borrowing from paparazzi such as Ron Galella and photojournalists such as Weegee, who became famous for street shots of crime scenes, Warhol created black and white portraits of people who are decidedly animated, often happy and deeply engaged in a wide variety of actions and settings. In his portrait of Larissa, the Belgian fashion designer and popular muse for fashion designer Thierry Mugler, Warhol expertly captures her with a gimlet eye almost asking the viewer to toast her wine glass.
Similarly, Warhol catches David Yarritu dressed for the downtown club Area's Red Party. While the performer's gaze is absorbed elsewhere, Warhol focuses on the shadowed folds of his cape, suggesting an updated abstract take on Holbein’s famous anamorphic skull in his painting, The Ambassadors. In the third photograph, Warhol catches a street artist enjoying concentrating on thrilling the crowd with his Houdini-like escape from chains. While all three of these portraits might be said to participate in the aesthetics of camp, they are also beautiful portraits that expose Warhol’s larger interest in nightlife, dress-up and the performances of everyday life.
By 1984, Warhol’s nightlife teemed with social events at Studio 54, downtown’s Area club, and elegant dinner parties, whose guests were VIPs from Hollywood to Wall Street. Warhol took his camera to these events and captured both the partying stars and the working staff who took the photographs and served the elegant (often ignored) food.
Roy Cohn, looking decisive, seems to be pleading with Warhol’s lens to let everyone sit down and eat. While Cohn allows Warhol’s camera a moment, the firm authority of the litigant’s hand on the table is verified by the woman to his right. Warhol confirms that power is tied to the capacity to hold the gaze – the woman’s, the photographer’s, our own.
Warhol’s portrait of Shirley MacLaine carefully lighting the candles on her oversized birthday cake lends weight to the idea that she knows how to illuminate a scene. Warhol frames her standing just to the side of the theatrical curtains behind her slyly suggesting that Warhol may well have found MacLaine herself a little bit off. Or perhaps it reflects the fact that he had unwittingly crashed the party and was feeling out of place himself.
Warhol liked to take pictures of other people taking pictures. The many images of other photographers doing the same thing he was might be seen as a series of wry self-portraits, or perhaps as a reflection of Warhol's desire to be one with the crowd. But either way, these photographs of photographers underlines Warhol's insight that cultural capital increases when a social event prompts the creation and circulation of great photographs. Thus, the archive of photographs is also a collection about photography as action, technology, and bonding ritual.
In Warhol's Walker Evans-like photograph of a shop window, the numbers 29, 30, 50 and ½, blare their math in Warhol’s tight frame, which doubles the frame of the window. Warhol's photograph captures another photograph in the window, the iconic shot of a Marilyn Monroe standing on a New York subway grate as her white dress flies up. An important contribution to Warhol’s larger interest in how we count - -socially, mathematically, and artistically – this photograph distills Warhol’s long meditation on what it means to be discounted in the fractional economies of socio-cultural capitalism where almost “everything” is subject to being “lost.”
Notice the angle of Warhol’s shot of the Empire State Building – very low and to the side. Taken in 1984, some 20 years after Warhol made his eight-hour film Empire, this photograph stacks the buildings in front of the architectural apex with “lesser” buildings and their shadows. Wryly alluding to the hierarchies of style and value that inform our ideas of great art and architecture, Warhol suggests a different way to look up. In traditional architectural photography, grandeur is conveyed by isolated, close focus on the building itself. While Warhol claimed that the purpose of his 1964 film of Empire was “to see time go by,” by 1984 he seems to have fallen away from the philosophical ambition of that task and replaced it with an interest in the stor(e)ys that animate the enveloping bruise and flow of the city itself. Can what we see be trusted? Is that shadow a smokestack? That bulge butting out of the window a stair to climb or an air conditioner beckoning us to lie down? Look, and look again. Strive to see and Empire(s) may be revealed.
A photograph of the Twin Towers taken in 1984 from the north side of Houston Street is free of the canopy of grief that now attends the same location after the events of 9/11/2001. It is tempting to read the billowing clouds above the towers as a kind of foreshadowing of those deadly attacks, but it is more likely that the contrasting shape of the two archaic water towers atop the buildings in the foreground leading to the cool modernism of the Twin Towers drew Warhol’s eye.
Street photography raises ethical questions of consent. Paparazzi chasing after celebrities create a sometimes dangerous game of cat and mouse, with some observers suggesting that if stars appear in public at all they have consented to be photographed. But what exactly are the terms of this consent? In this image, Warhol appears to respect the blind man by photographing him from behind, withholding an image of his face. But is this decision motivated by ethical regard for the dignity of the blind? By focusing on the blind man’s declarative sign, “I am Blind / Please buy a pencil / thank you” Warhol’s photograph suggests the man is a kind of human billboard, a Willy Loman who cannot not sell. Are the anonymous blind man and the celebrity engaged in the same hustle?
At 860 Broadway
Although Warhol’s reputation suggests he was socially awkward, reserved, and cool, in fact he had long and close friendships with many people. One of his oldest friends, Brigid Berlin, is seen here cuddling her pug, who is “smoking” a jaunty cigarette. Berlin, a powerful artist in her own right, is famous for her work as “B” in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and Back Again.
Warhol’s friends included other artists and he was especially close with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, both of whom were much younger than Warhol. Warhol and Basquiat collaborated on several important art works, and the archive contains several images of Basquiat painting. Here, Basquiat and Haring pose with Warhol at 860 Broadway, the studio in which all three artists took and posed for photographs frequently.
The woman who invented the wrap dress, Diane Von Fürstenberg, is seen here waiting for a photo session with Warhol, who made a silk-screen portrait of the designer in 1984. By then, Warhol was a well-practiced director of the photo sessions that led to his silkscreen portraits, almost all of which were shot in the tightly controlled setting of the Factory at 860 Broadway. The close-up focus of the silkscreens eliminated the need to worry about clothes or to contemplate the oddness of Warhol taking photos of a model while he himself was being photographed in the act of shooting. The contact sheets often restore the complexity of the encounter between Warhol and his model, as here, with the famous fashion designer nervously holding her hair in one hand and her top in the other.
The archive makes clear how deeply enmeshed Warhol was in the queer scene in New York. In 1984, perhaps the last gasp of sex radicalism before the onslaught of HIV and AIDS had fully taken hold, queer artists were experimenting with a theatricalized concept of identity. Here, Charles Ludlam, the founder of The Ridiculous Theatre Company, an ensemble designed for and about gay men, and Everett Quinton, an actor and costume designer for the company, prepare for “Total Beauty,” a photo session for Vogue (Paris) magazine.
John Sex, another queer artist, developed a popular performance in which he took on the persona of a Las Vegas lounge singer and MC, sending up the stereotype of aging white masculinity with a young camp style. In 1984, depictions of gay men often involved pornography on the one hand or oddly braided contexts of criminality and medical disease on the other. Warhol's much more admiring photographs open up an important and still under-explored aspect of the history of gay culture.
Warhol’s photograph of his printer, Rupert Smith, passionately kissing his boyfriend while both are wearing classic black and white tuxedos brings gay passion to the fore. At once conservative - the black and white tuxedo is hardly at the forefront of fashion’s avant-garde - and radical in its direct exposure of the heart-stopping fulsomeness of their kiss, this frame provokes us to imagine richer sexual and aesthetic possibilities still latent in the provocations of this intimate image.
Performing the Pose
As Warhol became more adept at using his SLR cameras, his ambition to link portraiture and setting became more pronounced. In these three portraits, Warhol aligns the model with the atmosphere of the room much more completely than in his Pop portraits. Halston sits in a dark bar wearing black tie and smoking, while in the background the illuminating flash of a different camera reminds us how completely the winking designer had mastered the art of the elegant pose.
This portrait of Diana Vreeland, the doyenne of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Department and long-time editor of Vogue, balances the background décor of Vreeland’s home with her refined fashion sense in rich detail. But more arresting still is Warhol’s focus on Vreeland’s elegant and commanding hands. Often referred to in Robert Collacello’s column in Interview magazine as “the empress,” the reach of Vreeland’s hands here render her chair a somewhat dwarfed throne.
Paloma Picasso, celebrating the debut of a new perfume bearing her name, leans in to be kissed. Warhol aligns the vee neck of her outfit with the shape of her earring, both hinting at the shape of the perfume bottle.