I was never a giggling fan of Andy Warhol, but one would have to be totally ignorant of modern art and his influence therein to fail giving him the attention and respect he deserves as an artist and master of modern communications, visual and otherwise. With androgyny before androgyny, much of his bent on conceptualism and pop-art ideas always left me a little dulled. He seemed a bit too trendy at times, and superficial as well. With that said, I really must say I loved this collection of his work and for several reasons.
My wife is a lover of Polaroid and its antics and jumped into the recent revival of such. I also was influenced by that first part of the coming of the Polaroid phenomenon early in my career in photography. This work put me back comfortably. We went there interested in the show basically billed as an exhibition of his Polaroid work, and I wasn’t prepared to see his traditional work in B&W silver based photography, which was a real plus; there’s a whole lot of good stuff there.
The Polaroids give way to the realization of some of his best known large graphic works and you can easily see the way in which he saw, or thought, and the carry-over from one media to the next and so on. For me, they felt like I was looking at Michelangelo’s unfinished carvings in stone, where you could peek into how the artist dealt with his materials. That gave me a great retro-fit as an added bonus to the show as a whole. My wife was delighted and I was very intrigued by this aspect of the visuals. Here visiting from the 1980s, these tiny and delicate little morsels seemed so wonderfully expressive just hanging there on the walls in their simplicity; they are pristine. I admit that I was more impressed than I had expected to be.
In photography, Warhol had a true egalitarian approach to his subject. Be it a king, a star or a nobody, they all got the same treatment, and his works in silver attest to that even more so, showing strong connection to those giants in the photographic tradition, much akin to the famous Frenchman, Eugène Atget, who brought the same humanism and level of integrity and dignity to his subject and you can feel it in the work. As with cold candids, these works are a bit banal, as they have no intentions of “propping up” the subject but are more interested in exploring what exactly the subject has to offer, intrinsic in its nature. Notably, there is one tender image on Polaroid of a pair of ballet shoes; you can feel them at a glance as though they are your own. In B&W some of the fragility of the prints seemed diminished, but the intimate quality remained, and I was surprised to feel moved by each of the elusive moments captured in silver by Warhol with his obvious need to portray. Though the academic approach to understanding this work will be warped into hyper drive of idealism and form, abstraction and concept, still photography tends to be more subject driven than other visual forms, and sometimes an apple remains an apple and a person is who they appear to be; nothing more, or less, captured in time.
The show was well attended and well received, and the gallery at the RISD museum was filled with goggling eyes and energetic comments, especially where private body parts were in clear evidence, “Honey, look at the penis!” I heard one person say while pointing at a nude study. There was nothing shocking about the photographs and maybe that was the most shocking part of the whole exhibition of roughly 100 works, half of which were Polaroid, the other silver. I came away with more respect for Andy Warhol based on this show rather than all the large works I‘ve seen from time to time in larger well-known exhibitions and galleries in NYC. Maybe in the end he was merely just a strange little man who really loved making art and this show made it self evident and made the work seem more personal than commercial … after the fact.
If you are an Andy Warhol enthusiast or photo-file, I’d make a special effort to view this work and it may make more of a lasting impression than anything else you may know or remember about the famous Warhol, free of all the cliché’s and worn-out speculations, and just hanging there on the wall, exposed and open for the world’s eye to see.