Art School(ed): Understanding Andy Warhol’s Photographs at the RISD Museum

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In 2007, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. established The Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program in order to celebrate the foundation’s 20th anniversary. The Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program donated approximately 28,500 of Warhol’s original photographs to more than 180 American college and university museums and galleries. The program selected the RISD Museum as a beneficiary of the program, and the invaluable gift of about 150 photographic works is on display in full at the museum now for this season’s blockbuster exhibition, Andy Warhol’s Photographs.

The show can be viewed in conjunction with the Warhol print Race Riot in the permanent collection gallery, and a nearby, complementary exhibition of Warhol’s screen tests (silent, slo-mo four minute film portraits of Warhol’s celebrity social circle, including Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, etc). The curators have transformed the RISD Museum into a Warholian wonderland.

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The curation of Andy Warhol’s Photographs pays homage to Warhol’s storied relationship with the RISD Museum. In 1970, Warhol curated a show called Raid the Icebox in the museum, inspired by the relationship between institutional collecting and Warhol’s  own compulsion to amass a personal archive. (Warhol created a project entitled Time Capsules, which consists of the 612 boxes he filled with ephemera and sent off to a storage facility throughout his lifetime, only to be unsealed now and archived professionally. In one box, the archivists found a piece of orange-nut bread sent to Warhol from his niece at least 25 years ago. Needless to say, it was no longer fresh.)

The RISD Museum’s past curatorial tryst with Warhol informs Andy Warhol’s Photographs, which is comprised of two neighboring rooms. The two vary in their organization: the first room references a salon style of exhibition, while the other seems to conform to a more linear, white-cube gallery layout. The salon style room displays only Polaroids, clustered on the walls in archetypal groups of traditional solo portraits, nudes, still lifes, mothers with children, and double portraits of couples, while the more linear room exhibits a collection of black and white gelatin prints. This separation feels necessary: Warhol believed that these two acts of photography functioned differently for him, as the polaroids served as raw material for his art while his black and white photographs embodied his visual diary and his personal archive.

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The Polaroids can be distinguished from the black and white snapshots by the way they re-envision and flirt with art historical tropes. For example, Gianni and Marella Agnelli face each other in a diptych, wearing matching black turtlenecks and mimicking The Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. Madonna with Child directly acknowledges its matriarchal predecessors in the lineage of Christian imagery. Warhol puts his own spin on Flowers, a subject that Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin or Paul Cézanne have immortalized before in paint.

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The show’s thesis asserts that photography operated at the very core of Warhol’s creative vision, for multiple reasons: it was his necessary first step when approaching a painting or a screen print, and photography appealed to him because of the camera’s inherent and unique disposition as an archive machine that most efficiently replicates some form of reality. This thesis is evident in the museum curators’ decision to designate one room to the Polaroids and the other room to the diaristic black and white prints. The wall that separates the two rooms symbolizes the way Warhol attributed respective philosophies to these different processes of image-making.

It is only natural for us youthful “millennials” to consider this exhibit’s pieces in terms of their contemporary contexts and digital successors. Warhol used his Minox 35mm camera as we use our smartphone cameras today: with the Minox, he captured the small fascinations of each day and aggregated an archive, not unlike the one that exists in our modern day iPhotos and “Mupload” Facebook albums. The Polaroids seem to have a modern day successor as well: Warhol acknowledged that his SX-70 Big Shot camera “[got] rid of everybody’s wrinkles, [and] sort of [simplified] the face.” With its immediacy, small, rectangular aspect ratio, and appeal to an amateur photographer, today’s “selfie” seems to be the only near-equivalent of the color Polaroid (although it flatters the face of its subject because it flattens the face into pixels, rather than the Polaroid which flattered with its flash while maintaining the face’s dimensionality).

Upon immediate exposure to Andy Warhol’s Photographs, the collection seems to emphasize a certain portrayal of Warhol’s social circle of both friends and patrons, but the show digs deeper. The Polaroid has experienced a taxing few decades since Warhol shot these images, and Andy Warhol’s Photographs probes the issues of the analog medium: how do you present a show made from nearly bygone materials in 2014? How does the Polaroid function in a society that has rejected it? Can ventures like The Impossible Project revive the Polaroid to its original glory? Is the Polaroid image gaining value now that there are only a finite number of Polaroids circulating around the world? Are analog film and analog image-making philosophies still relevant to a contemporary audience, beyond the art school demographic? Discolored, pale, and speckled, the Polaroid of Chris Evert serves as the shining example of the medium’s degradation. (This offers the viewer a brush of irony, considering that the most disintegrated Polaroid on the museum wall features an athletic powerhouse who represents physical excellence.) The 35mm snapshots next door quiver in fear, knowing that their medium is next in line to tumble into obsolescence. The best kinds of exhibits inspire these thoughts and questions, but empower the audience to grapple with these musings beyond their day in the museum. The RISD Museum’s show Andy Warhol’s Photographs does just that.

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Both rooms of Warhol’s raw photographic material bring Gerhard Richter’s Atlas to mind, as Warhol and Richter alike considered their preliminary creation as a draft for a grander subsequent work. The public, however, has deemed these collections of “drafts” worthy of institutional display. Warhol would have swooned over the idea of the public audience invading his private collection.

For a productive study break or some visual stimulation during reading period, take a springtime stroll down Benefit Street and visit the Warhol shows at the RISD Museum. Andy Warhol’s Photographs and Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests will be exhibited in unison until May 11th. Andy Warhol’s Photographs will continue until June 29th.

Images via and via. 

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