New York

Andy Warhol Photography

Andy Warhol is to photography as Shakespeare is to words, Freud to cigars, and Lagerfeld, fans. How impressive then that one not-too-huge exhibition has taken on such a whopper so adequately. The ICP show, which originated in 1999 at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, includes photos of Warhol shot by himself and by others (Avedon, Mapplethorpe, etc.), sources for his paintings, his insider-paparazzo snaps, and photos qua photos. A blowup of the pallid Pop prince dwarfs entering viewers: Nosferatu-ish yet modern, Warhol warily clutches rosary beads, eyeing Cecil Beaton, the dapper shutterbug reflected in the mirror behind him. Producing by reproducing, the Factory cranked out media-created Superstars in a profoundly shallow world—ours—that confused identity and image, original and copy. Warhol vampirized everything from Jackies to soup cans into Warhols, in a now-familiar orgy of “branding” where star and voyeur, name and nobody became one.

He lived the dream that glamour is contagious. Like a great movie you’ve seen several times too many, if Warhol’s issues feel tired, it’s because they’ve so infected our style bloodstream—you try to reawaken them by appreciating details. His fiesta of boundary-blurring glamour so permeates our fashion unconscious that the famous Avedon portrait of the draped and undraped, rainbow-gendered Factory hipsters seems to anticipatorily plagiarize the “grunge”-era Gap ads that ripped it off.

Photos of the famed celebreholic reveal his tics: We see him as a tot in a photobooth (the machine); as ingenue posing Garbo-like among pansies (the fairy); as bewigged Factory auteur among hench-freaks (the Superstar); as replicated by Warhol look-alikes (identity issues); and as torso seamed with Frankensteinian scars from the botched assassination (celebrity = death). One is struck by the disparity between Warhol’s image obsession and the lamentable raw material he was saddled with; between his media-machine glamour fantasy and the body that defies aesthetic mastery. Reflecting undead Superstars, Fame, and Nothingness, Warhol’s “look” is uncannily corpse-like. In one shot, he’s a lumpy-faced wreck in a duet with his own shadow. In Self-Portrait in Drag, 1981–82, his bushy white eyebrows show fuzzily under carefully drawn-on glamour arches. He’s heavily spackled like his portrait subjects, the better for the camera to fudge “flaws.” In Self-Portrait, 1979, a large-format Polaroid pitilessly bares his mottled skin in a strangely candid-seeming close-up. His gaze seems to mirror our own as he mouths an expression of distaste at what he sees. Yet just a few years later, Warhol would totter down runways as a professional Zoli model. Finally living his “working girl” fantasy, he looks moribund. His self-portrait paintings in camouflage and black-on-black are great-looking icons, redeeming bleh flesh through extreme stylization.

The show traces Warhol’s early use of photo sources for the death-tinged paintings of Stars (widowed Jackie) and Disasters (Car Crash), with examples from his stash of tabloids and Hollywood publicity shots. A photo of Shirley Temple poignantly autographed to “Andrew Warhola” establishes the Pittsburgh-born waif’s precocious yen for celebrity relics—and now is a Warhol relic itself. His Marilyn hangs next to his equally fetching portrait of art dealer Holly Solomon; reflecting a world where image is reality, he “Factory-produced” his client’s real fantasy of herself as a Hollywood-style glamour puss: “I wanted to be Brigitte Bardot,” Solomon said. “I wanted to be Jeanne Moreau, Marilyn Monroe all packed into one.” One appreciates, yet again, his genius use of photobooth strips in the ’60s; which seem to churn out personalities, media-style, like machine-made products.

The Superstar Factory offered its services to rich clients in Warhol’s super-high-end glamour-shot business: rendering “up there” types into “Warhols,” retouched for maximum flattery from Polaroid sources, and repaying him in dividends of reflected prestige. In Holy Terror, Bob Colacello depicts a whiny artiste prodding his hench-hustlers to “pop the question” to his posh prey. A grid of working Polaroids (from guppy-faced Candy Spelling to Caroline of Monaco to Francis Bacon) reads like the trophy room of big-game schmoozing, many of the less-fresh faces clown-whitened to smooth complexions for the camera. “Behind the scenes” snaps show Jane Fonda, on crutches yet, throwing star-attitude through mummylike makeup as she is petrified into a Warhol. Her masklike portrait whimsically hangs next to Polaroids of the wigged one in drag. He looks like Fonda’s really homely relative, both similarly mortified by harsh red lipstick, chalky foundation, and poufy helmet hair.

From sleek faygeleh Halston to an intime summit between rouged dragon ladies Diana Vreeland and Martha Graham, it’s hard not to see the plentiful insider-paparazzo shots through the lens of the Diaries, where Warhol comes off as a cold but nervous boldface-name addict, a portrait Colacello completes with nods to his manipulativeness. The ever starstruck mirror of fabulosity appears a pasty apparition literally kissing up to bigshots John Lennon, Liza, a scary Dalí, and Philip Johnson. The late series of stitched photos are just plain visually great, as are the shots of piles of tires, skeletons, and candy. Banal subjects such as a street front dominated by a giant “Going Out of Business” sign are beautified when sewn into cool allover rhythms. The tidy white sutures pierce the photos like a skin or textile. Evoking Warhol’s unforgettably seamed gut, they connect photography, industrial process, and flesh.

And his films Kiss and Screen Tests provide a rare yet trying treat. Staring at Susan Sontag’s wall-sized face for several minutes, one is rewarded with Zen-ish insight into Warhol’s power and boringness. Excited by the slightest relief from the monotony, be it flicker or twitch, our sense of palpable anticlimax puts us where celebrity and nothingness are one. We expect the famous thing to offer up its secret—but wind up with nothing save our fantasy. The show ends with understated “still lifes” of money: crumpled bills styled in tidy rolls and dumped loose, the ultimate fetish demystified, like just stuff.

My only complaint regards the unworthy offerings in the gift shop. You’d think such a tour de force of spin-offs would inspire better tchotchkes! One hoped for high-low fun like, say, socialite fridge magnets or Liz flasks, only to find dreck like a $35 Andy doll with Cabbage Patch–like face and Campbell’s T-shirt and icky Planet Hollywood–esque neckties. Dommage!

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer living in New York.