Wonder what Warhol’s Instagram would have looked like? Stanford‘s exclusive new exhibit gives a glimpse.
The iconic artist was a photo fanatic who engaged the visual age to come.
“A picture means I know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.”——Andy Warhol
There is a picture in the new Andy Warhol photography exhibit at Stanford University which shows Dolly Parton hanging out with Keith Haring. It’s awesome. And odd. And just wonderfully unexpected. Why the iconic country musician is laughing it up with the offbeat NYC artist seems to make no sense and—since it is tied to the orbit of Andy Warhol—perfect sense all at the same time.
The new exhibit at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, Contact Warhol: Photography Without End, has no shortage of compelling images like this, particularly when it comes to celebrity-driven intrigue: John Lennon hanging out with Liza Minelli, Debbie Harry with Truman Capote, Michael Jackson and Muhammed Ali in their prime, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wedding, Jackie Onassis, Nancy Reagan, John Travolta. Oh…and Andre the Giant too. The list is long, colorful and diverse.
But the visual name dropping in the era of Studio 54 New York is merely one component of Warhol’s prolific photo archives, which ultimately reflect back on the world around him in daily detail. In addition to marquee stars at 5th Avenue soirees, Warhol captured everyday people on street corners and at flea markets. Neon signs, graffiti, mannequins in store fronts. Garbage in alleyways and produce in super markets. Warhol also dove deep (graphically, at times) into the increasingly-emerging world of gay culture. Collectively, he deemed it all his “visual diary,” and decades later it speaks to our present image-driven era that he never even lived to experience.
“One of the reasons the subtitle is Photography Without End,” explains Stanford art professor and exhibit co-curator Richard Meyer, “is because we were thinking about his legacy, or what we sometimes think of as “The Warhol Effect”: the ways in which his practice of photography … are prophetic of our cell phone photographs and things like Instagram and Facebook; where there is an almost relentless curating of one’s own life.”
In this regard, Stanford is not only premiering a high profile, one-of-a-kind art exhibit this month, but a remarkably relevant one that engages a new facet of Warhol’s already eclectic legacy.
It can be easily lost amid Campbell soup cans or screen prints of Marilyn and Mao, but as Meyer is quick to point out—“photography has always been in Warhol’s work since the very beginning.” It’s a logical enough of a transition: Warhol was working off of existing imagery for many of his most iconic pieces. In time, he transitioned to taking those types of reference photographs himself via Polaroids.
But then in 1976, Warhol got his first 35mm camera and for the final decade of his life became a photography fanatic of sorts, far beyond merely getting source material for prints and paintings. He began to document his life Instagram-like the way we do today, capturing a wide scope of the world around him and producing a sizable archive that fell into a gray area of his artistic legacy.
Since Warhol was primarily known as a painter, the issue of defining his photography had to be settled in court after his death (amid issues over his estate) and raised the question of whether his images were works of art or simply archival research materials. Not only was Warhol’s imagery deemed fine art photography, but his full photo archive (including the early polaroids) was valued at $80 million.
More than just art-world politics, the saga lends focus to just how big of an acquisition (some might say, coup) this portion of Warhol’s archive was for Stanford. It is, after all, a massive body of work from a world-renowned artist. (In 2009, The Economist characterized Warhol’s work as “the bellwether of the art market.”)
Chosen in 2014 by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as the permanent home of the collection, Stanford University has spent the past few years digitizing the materials, which consisted of 3600 contact sheets that equate to about 160,000 individual frames.
“Initially, the sheer number [of images] was overwhelming,” Meyer says, “there was no way to know how to organize it.”
After an extensive and years-long cataloguing effort by project archivist and Warhol scholar Amy DiPasquale, the new exhibit takes a wide angle approach to the collective body of work, showcasing the many facets of the content within the archive and sectioning them out under smaller themes, each of which (such as gay gay gay—Warhol’s photos of queer culture) could likely serve as standalone exhibits all their own.
Yet even as the show anchors off of the contact sheets (including an interactive touch screen monitor for exploring the wider collection) it still comes off as classic Warhol, with iconic silk screens of Basquiat, Blondie and Mao. There is also no shortage Warhol portraits. Though….for this exhibit, perhaps they’re better characterized as selfies.
Contact Warhol: Photography Without End runs at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center until January 6, 2019. Admission is free.
For curator talks, tours and other programs related to the exhibit, check the full schedule here.
The MIT Press and Cantor will publish a catalogue of the exhibit later this month, including original essays and wide selection of imagery featured in the current exhibit.
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