PROVIDENCE – Andy Warhol isn’t primarily thought of as a photographer, nor should he be, yet photography was absolutely central to his work.
Photographs helped form Warhol’s artistic sensibility. As a kid he had a Brownie and collected movie publicity stills, and there was the example of his brother managing a photo shop. Note how the job combined art, commerce, and production. Photographs provided the source of many of Warhol’s most famous silk screens. During the ’70s and ’80s, he used Polaroid test shots as the basis for the steady stream of celebrity and rich-people portraits that paid the bills. And in that open-filter Warholian way, he constantly — and casually — took photographs just for the sake of taking photographs. In fact, the immense body of work that is the Warhol canon includes more photographs than any other item.
“Andy Warhol’s Photographs,” which runs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum through June 29, offers a sampling of color Polaroids and the Minox 35mm black-and-white pictures he took during the final decade of his life. Can a show big in numbers (there are 157 images) feel small in everything else? Can a small show not feel intimate?
The answer to both questions is yes. That’s OK, since the exhibition isn’t about the images, per se. Really, it’s about Warhol. Even with the famous subjects of some of the Polaroids, their fame is subsidiary to his – and his fascination with their fame.
Most of the 105 Polaroids were taken in preparation for portraits. They’re like blueprints, blueprints for buildings that are boring. Does the fact that Warhol knew perfectly well they were boring make them better or worse? Let’s just say that no artist has ever been better at having things both ways.
Often, there are multiple versions. Warhol would set up three feet in front of the subject (who’d often be heavily made up for the sake of contrast – and flattery). He’d take a bunch of pictures, and then in consultation with the sitter choose one to use as the portrait model.
Some of the sitters are recognizable. Hey, there’s Maria Shriver. Hey, that must be Chris Evert, since she’s holding a tennis racket. Others are people who are unidentified or whose names are unfamiliar. The difference between those we know and those we don’t is nominal. Warhol makes them all – Warhols. “I try to make everybody look great,” he once said, speaking as artist no less than as businessman. There’s a democracy to celebrity in these pictures.
That’s in keeping with a larger Warholian love of sameness and repetition – sameness and repetition as aesthetic virtue. “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking,” Warhol once said. “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”
These Polaroids are Cokes. Partly that’s by artistic intent. They’re means to an end. Partly that’s in the nature of the Polaroid process. All cameras are machines, but the Polaroid camera is a machine that’s also a miniature factory. Insert film, press button, out pops print. The camera is its own assembly line. Andy famously called his studio the Factory. How could he not have loved Polaroids?
Machines are notoriously impersonal, and that’s the case here. Four photographs of the actress Viva, star of several of Warhol’s underground films, holding her baby, have a human feel otherwise lacking in the pictures – and that’s as true of the occasional still life or male nude (each of which resembles a still life) as of the portraits.
The 52 black-and-white photographs are so much more interesting than the Polaroids. They’re pictures Warhol wanted to take rather than pictures he was required to. He took them indiscriminately, as a kind of visual diary or daybook. Street scenes, furniture, people he knew, people he didn’t. There’s an appealing looseness – but as with the Polaroids, the interest isn’t intrinsic. It’s the Warhol connection.
Starting in 1964, Warhol began filming friends and associates as part of his “Screen Tests” series. Some 350 people participated over the next two years. The movie camera, a Bolex, would remain immobile. The subject sat for a little under three minutes, seen usually at about shoulder height.
Each film, projected slightly slowed, lasts about four minutes. Then the image flares, fades, and disappears. It feels like death (another enduring Warholian concern). The films are silent and in black-and-white. (In color they might be emotionally unbearable.) Twenty of them are being shown in “Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” which runs through May 11.
The films are something like genius: almost blunderingly simple and obvious, but the simple and obvious brought out the very best in Warhol. Out of this particular simplicity and obviousness emerges a constellation of complexities concerning indentity, emotion, and appearance. The screen tests are a form of self-portraiture, with Andy as enabler, since the sitter decides how to respond to the camera: blankly, angrily, joyfully.
These are close-ups beyond the close-up as commonly understood. Warhol removes the layer of artifice that narrative imparts to create unique character studies. We see not just a face but a completely self-aware face. There’s an almost unnerving release from social convention. The sitters are allowed to stare at the camera, a mechanical surrogate for another person, and we’re allowed to stare – and stare – and stare – right back.
Who’s being tested by the screen tests: subject or viewer? And is the screen the one the image is being projected on or the one that the subject tries to maintain before the camera? Again, we see Warhol’s ability to have things both ways.
Some of the sitters are very famous. Bob Dylan, wearing sunglasses, cracks up with laughter, walks away, then returns (bathroom break?). Susan Sontag, also in sunglasses, lights and smokes a cigarette with movie-star glamour. Allen Ginsberg stares into the lens.
There are three members of the Warhol-sponsored rock band the Velvet Underground: John Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico. She’s the most studied: tilting her head, looking off in the middle distance, reading a magazine, rolling it into a telescope, exuding an air of pouty boredom.
Boredom, another key Warholian attribute, also lurks here: the sitters’ vs. the viewers’. But once the latter surrender to the tests’ rhythmless rhythm, the tests become transfixing. James Rosenquist, the Pop painter, turns and turns during his. Did he get dizzy? The viewer does, a bit. It’s as if Rosenquist’s dancing with an invisible partner – and he is, us.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.