So much had already been written about Andy Warhol during his lifetime and even more after his unexpected death in 1987 after gall bladder surgery that it will probably be a century before any meaningful and new assessment is possible. Still, our fascination with him lingers, in part because he was so unanalytical and seemingly uninterested in being probed and understood on a deeper level. As he said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
I wouldn't be the first to say that's disingenuous. He was a smart man who craved fame and fortune and achieved both with his perceptiveness about the culture in which he lived. And with his talent and creativity. He was a voracious gatherer of both the high and low, and nowhere is that more clear than in the thousands of photographs he took.
A collection of his Polaroids and black and white prints on view at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum doesn't provide any new insights but does give us a look into his working methods. Even better, curator Jane Simon has organized a marvelous companion exhibition of contemporary photography that doesn't emulate the master but taps into and extends his ethos.
The Warhol photographs were a gift from the Warhol Foundation, which is in the process of divesting itself of its collection, selling off major works to increase its grant endowment and making gifts to university and college museums so that research and study can be continued. (The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is still the largest and finest repository of his work, and it remains unchanged.)
All the Polaroids are lined up in a single row that wraps around the walls of one gallery, like acolytes paying homage to their creator. He took them in preparation for the famous silk-screen paintings. Some were commissioned portraits — a huge source of income — and some were of the celebrities he cultivated such as one of his favorites, Liza Minnelli. Warhol didn't always label them so we don't know who the beautiful woman is in a series of seven he took in 1986, one with her dog, or if he completed a commissioned portrait for which they were taken before he died.
They're all casually posed, always taken from the shoulders up, and the individuals usually wear a heavy white Kabuki-like makeup that flattens out detail, a hallmark of his final screens. The women wear bright lipstick and heavy eye makeup to emphasize those features. (He seemed to prefer female portraits and those are his best.) There are no paintings, but we clearly see their genesis in these preliminaries.
"The Importance of Being Photographed" in the adjacent gallery, with eight artists represented by 28 works, is a rich repository of ideas about the power of photography to reveal while it documents. That deeper intent seems at first antithetical to the Warhol sensibility. But all of these works begin, as did Warhol's, with a contract between the sitter and photographer. Compare them to many of the photographs by photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson now at the Tampa Museum of Art, in which people are often unaware of his presence. In this show, they all strike conscious poses.
Three works by Tina Barney are among the most compelling. Like most in the show, they're large-scale and saturated with color. And, like many, they are strangely unsettling. Family Commission With Snake (Waterfalls), for example, captures a wealthy New York family in their elegant apartment. Yet the son, daughter, father and mother pose as individuals rather than a family unit as the teenage daughter, front and center, sullenly holds a large pet snake. Since it was a commission, we can assume this is how the family wanted to be portrayed, as is true of Marina and Peter, with another young woman who stares vacantly at the camera, smoking a cigarette in her bedroom as her father leans down on the bed with a look that could be one of mystification or frustration. It also could be considered a sort of pendant painting, which means in art part of a set, because it was made 10 years after the same father and daughter were photographed in the same room in 1987 in an engaging tableaux. Unfortunately, the earlier photograph isn't in this show, but you can find it online and compare them.
Probably the work with the most obvious connection to Warhol is Jason Lazarus' Spencer Elden in His Last Year of High School (January 2008). Elden was the 3-month-old baby who was plunged into a pool for the famous photograph that appeared on the 1991 album cover of Nirvana's Nevermind. He had what we might call his 15 minutes of fame — he and his family never made any money from it — that has evolved into a shadow-life of cult celebrity that has nothing to do with anything but being a naked baby in a pool.
Warhol would have loved that story. And many others that emerge in the show.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.