My recent visit to the Nasher Museum of Art, for a walk-through of the museum’s exhibition on the photography of Andy Warhol, happened to coincide with a rehearsal for the American Dance Festival.
“It’s lively,” said Wendy Hower, the Nasher’s director of engagement and marketing, as she let me in at the loading dock entrance and we boarded the service elevator. “There’s nudity,” she warned.
But we must have arrived too early or too late in the rehearsal, for when we reached the main floor, music was blaring but all the dancers were fully clothed, stepping back and forth in unison in front of a background set.
The Nasher’s chief curator, Marshall Price, then led me into the nearby exhibition room, where the sound was slightly dampened. All this was happening because it was Monday, the one day the museum is closed to the public. Such a multimedia whirlwind seemed fitting for an exploration of Warhol’s photography.
As we stood chatting, Price broke off: “Oh, this isn’t even on,” and disappeared for a moment to reboot the room’s large television, which screens Warhol’s silent film Henry Geldzahler. The film, like one of Warhol’s famous screen tests, features the titular Geldzahler sitting idly in a chair, smoking a stogie and staring out from behind a pair of dark glasses for 99 minutes.
“I knew I wanted to build the show around [Warhol’s] use of the camera lens,” Price says, “because it was so important to his process. So that’s why, for example, you can mix the screen prints with the black-and-white photographs with the Polaroids and even with the one film we have in the collection. They all relate to his reliance on the lens in the creation of a work of art.”
Andy Warhol: You Look Good in Pictures opened in early April and runs through the end of August, in a room adjacent to the sprawling Spirit in the Land, which runs through July 9, and Love & Anarchy, which opened last week and runs through next February.
The Warhol exhibition showcases his polaroids and black-and-white photography alongside the fidgety film of Geldzahler, a photo of Warhol at one of his Brillo Box installations, and the screen prints and large screen-printed paintings he made from found photos as well as his own.
This part of Warhol’s practice—making screen prints from photographs he took himself—is often misunderstood.
“This piece here, the Joseph Beuys screen print, was taken from a Polaroid of Beuys that Warhol took,” Price says, pointing to a yellowish snapshot reproduced on the wall label. “Looking at this, you might not know it came from an actual photograph Warhol himself took. It’s different, in many ways, from the screen prints of found photographs, like the Jackie Kennedy and the Marilyn piece. But this process of taking the Polaroid and then using it as the basis for a screen print was really important for him.”
The perimeter of the exhibition room is covered in black-and-white photos, punctuated by screen prints—the four-panel Beuys, a gray-and-white Jackie, a glowing Marilyn, a tri-tone Muhammad Ali, and a collage-like portrait of Wilhelmina Ross—with a long glass case of Polaroids in the center of the floor.
Warhol had been experimenting with photography since the late 1940s. In the ’60s he began practicing in earnest.
“He would not go out without a camera in hand for almost his whole life,” Price says. “He either had a camera or a camera and a tape recorder with him, documenting his life and other people’s in a kind of stream of consciousness.”
Many of the photos’ sitters are marked “unidentified,” and aside from a few with matte white backgrounds, likely taken at Warhol’s studio the Factory, many of the locations are unknown.
“Maybe that was Studio 54,” Price speculates about one. “He loved the glamour and the glamorous life and people who were glamorous, or thought they were glamorous.”
Most of the photographs were produced between 1977 and 1985, a period that was a culmination of Warhol’s obsessive, years-long documentation of his social circle—the New York arty and fashionable set, street figures, and Factory entourage—and society’s broader saturation of images and fleeting cultural memory.
The Nasher itself encourages visitor photos: “We love selfies best!” a sign in the lobby reads. It echoes Warhol’s credo that every face is capable of iconicity—if you shoot it right.
But the exhibition also rewards close engagement with the works, their manner of production, and what Warhol’s world might have been like behind the scenes, between captured moments. The intimacy, the joyful wit of many of the photos, how Warhol took many of them in rapid-fire fashion, without looking into the viewfinder. How, for better or worse, he helped pioneer a visual culture of proliferation, of status achieved by widespread media presence.
“He was a harbinger of social media in so many ways,” Price says, “from the photos that cry out “‘Oh, I’m here; look who I’m with,’ to the disposable nature of the images, because he took so many. He wasn’t after a ‘good picture’ in which you would stage somebody and there’d be lighting and you’d capture that”—Price snaps his fingers—“decisive moment. But [he was interested in] capturing those fleeting moments in passing, those ephemeral moments, which is what social media is capturing today. So he probably would have loved it.”
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