Artist Andy Warhol sought out and reveled in the reflection of beautiful people throughout his life, perhaps in reaction to his mixed feelings about his own appearance. A snap-happy photographer (he left behind more than 50,000 images, ranging from 35mm b&w prints to 16mm films to his favorite medium, the 3×4-inch Polaroid), he documented his glam world with casual abandon and a knack for candid elegance. While many collections of Warhol’s photography reveal a slipshod attitude behind the lens, we see a more refined side of his artistic eye in a thoughtfully curated exhibit, People Are Beautiful: Prints, Photographs, and Films by Andy Warhol, at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, NY, on view through April 15.
Warhol made a habit of incorporating photographs within grander works of art, most famously in his Marilyn series—the 1967 print above is front-and-center in the show, and similar large-scale silkscreen treatments of Jackie O, Ingrid Bergman, and others fill the front room of the Art Center gallery. But the bulk of the exhibition focuses on Warhol’s straight photography, including candid shots of nights on the town with celebs (and scattered “unknown” revelers), sequential body studies of friends (such as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and actress Alba Clemente), and formal Polaroid portraits of ’70s stars (Dorothy Hamill, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, John Denver).
“Because Warhol took so many photographs during his lifetime, most of them have not been seen by the general public so their full impact has not yet been felt,” says Mary-Kay Lombino, curator of the Art Center show. “Photography is not only a central component of all of Warhol’s work, but it was equally integral to his life. I think it’s important to include them in exhibitions so that we can more fully understand his work and his influence.”
Like many a fiscal-minded artist, Warhol courted wealthy patrons as subjects—such as art collector and philanthropist Anne Bass (above left), former wife of billionaire oilman Sid Bass—and portrayed them flatteringly, even in small Polaroid prints. His own self-image seemed to emerge behind a playful sense of camouflage, as in his above self-portrait suggesting he didn’t believe in brushes or combs.
As implied in the exhibition’s title, Warhol’s idea of beauty took many forms, ranging from classic pulchritude among the young models, artists and hipsters who populated Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s to the transgender subjects of his Ladies and Gentlemen series in the mid-1970s, which evinced his fascination with the disco-era underground and resulted in a wild collection of silkscreen prints.
In the back of the Art Center show is a room showing Warhol’s filmed screen tests of stars in the making, revealing his fascination with moving images as well as his penchant for tediousness in the medium (this is the man who shot the world’s longest dull movie, Empire, in 1964). Among the screen-test subjects is Edie Sedwick, who went on to make several films with Warhol, inspired songs by Bob Dylan including “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Just Like a Woman,” and tragically died young in 1971. The Warhol show reflects a time when young and glamorous people were beautiful, even if that beauty was fleeting.