Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids
Nasher Museum of Art
Through Feb. 21, 2010

Andy Warhol was a well-known pack rat. The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has an entire room of his numbered file boxes, crammed with all sorts of ephemera that the artist would toss in. He would fill a box and then move on to a new one the next day, forming an odd, kaleidoscopic personal filing system and journal. It wasn’t difficult for the artist to fill up boxes: Warhol was enamored with consumer culture and all those transitory moments and things that waft through our throwaway society.

After his early successes, Warhol began to produce his work in the Factory, which he founded in New York in 1962. Over time, the Factory expanded from being a bohemian enclave to include a much larger group of thrill-seeking jet-setters. Warhol became a highly sought portraitist, and his clientele included movie stars, socialites, athletes and fashion models, as well as art patrons and banking, finance and real estate players. But not everyone who passed through was famous. The Factory was also a place where random nobodiessome unidentified to this daycould wander through. (The tragic price of this open-door policy was Warhol’s nearly fatal 1968 shooting at the hands of an unstable Factory fringe character, Valerie Solanas. After the shooting, the Factory understandably became a less freewheeling place. )

All these echoes of archival accumulation, celebrity, glamour and intoxicating cosmopolitanism reverberate throughout Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids, now on view at the Nasher Museum of Art. In this behind-the-scenes exhibition of photographs taken by Warhol mostly in the 1970s and early 1980s, visitors to the Nasher will see such enduring faces as those of Carly Simon, Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, oddly, Jack Nicklaus. Other faces, like that of figure skater Dorothy Hamill, Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell and rock ‘n’ roll wife Bianca Jagger are of the temporarily famous who serve as cultural touchstones in this show for those of a certain age. Still, while the celebrities are the most obviously eye-catching, the majority of the photos here are of the rich rather than of the famous.

The pictures, which in the end numbered in the thousands and were meticulously archived by Warhol, served as working material for the artist and were not intended to be exhibited as finished products. Two years ago, the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program donated 28,000 Warhol photos to 181 arts institutions. Each museum, including the Nasher, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum and UNC-Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, received approximately 150 Polaroids and 50 black-and-white gelatin prints. Visitors to the Nasher should be sure to catch the accompanying films on view in an inner gallery. These short films distill and animate much of the essence of the photographic work.

In addition to a broad range of commissioned portrait work are shots seemingly taken at random: parties, dinners, a pair of chairs, streetscape and sidewalk scenes, and an anonymous neighborhood restaurant. These photos are a bit baffling, but they do reflect the eclectic visual prism through which Warhol viewed life.

The show is also strongly cinematic. Many of the framed Polaroids are presented in series format, corresponding to a studio shoot, with six or more photographs made in quick succession. The results provide intriguing insights into Warhol’s working method not readily gleaned from the final images he produced from his Polaroid studies.

The show’s curators have thoughtfully included an example of a Polaroid Big Shot, the artist’s preferred camera. Designed for photos taken within a 4-foot range and a bit finicky in operation, the Big Shot proved a perfect tool for Warhol, embodying many of his interests, including accessibility, disposability and mass production and consumption.

One of the most widely recognized figures of his day, Warhol attained a level of celebrity unlike any other in the art world, which allowed him to cross boundaries in unprecedented ways. As Big Shots proves with penetrating insight, Warhol gained enough power and access that he was able to create his own type of celebrity. How many other artists, for instance, could claim in 1985, as Warhol could, that they had had their eighth solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery and also a guest appearance on The Love Boat? It’s no wonder everyone wanted him to take their picture.