Warhol exhibit examines the artist’s inspiration

“Warhol at Work” provides a valuable perspective on the man behind some of the most influential and recognizable art of the 20th century.

By Will Sims

According to renowned art critic Thomas E. Crow, there are three distinct public personas of Andy Warhol—the self-created public persona, the one created by his innovative artistic vision, and the one that engaged in cultural experimentation beyond the art world. Elements of all three of these personas are on view in the Smart Museum’s Warhol at Work exhibit, offering insights not only into his creative process, but into the private life that inspired it.

The exhibit is dominated by a set of 35 small portraits on the back wall of the Bernstein Gallery, arranged in a grid of thin wooden frames. Ranging from shots of male genitalia and buttocks in the top right corner to ones of two young children at the bottom left, the subjects of the portraits are powerfully diverse. A half-turned woman in an evening gown is sharply juxtaposed with an adjcent shot of Native American activist Russell Means dressed in his tribe’s traditional clothing. At the same time, their commonalities are striking. The blank backgrounds, desaturated colors, and liberal use of white makeup give them a washed-out aesthetic reminiscent of Warhol’s screen prints. An accompanying pamphlet shows a selection of Polaroids next to the prints they inspired, making explicit the connection between these photos and Warhol’s trademark medium.

The exhibit continually juxtaposes pieces of Warhol’s work with the original portrait it was inspired by. For example, Warhol’s screen print “Witch” is paired with a portrait of Margaret Hamilton wearing the costume for her role as the witch in The Wizard of Oz. The difference in scale is jarring, with the diminutive photograph making the oversized print seem all the more dominant. The contrast in the use of color is similarly striking—the faded photo literally pales next to the garish hues of the screen print. Despite these differences, viewing the two together emphasizes the understanding of line and surface that came to dominate Warhol's later art.

The left side of the gallery displays three tightly grouped sets of black-and-white photos, selected from the thousands in Warhol’s private collection. For much of Warhol’s artistic career, he carried a black-and-white 35mm camera wherever he went, capturing not only inspiration for his work, but also creating a record of his daily life. The photos walk a tenuous line between portraiture and candid photography. Many of the subjects are clearly aware that they are being photographed, but, unlike in the portraits, they appear natural—caught embracing a friend or listening attentively. These photos offer a first-hand view of the world of bustling New York artists and celebrities that served as the incubator for Warhol’s ideas.

Warhol’s studies of setting get further treatment in the center group of photos, which document the streets and apartments of his New York City home. People appear in several of the shots, but it is clear that they are not the focus, but simply objects meant to give context to their surroundings. A focus on geometric shapes and tilted angles show that even in his casual, everyday shots, Warhol’s eye for the aesthetic was omnipresent.

The most striking photo of all rests by itself: A Polaroid portrait of Warhol himself that went on to serve as a blueprint for his later “Self Portrait.” His shock of white hair shoots off in all directions, but the intensity of his stare captivates the viewer’s eye. The photo is both personal and powerful—a glimpse of the troubled genius who came to define Pop Art.

With its focus on Warhol’s personal life and creative process, Warhol at Work offers little for those seeking universally-recognized screen prints of soup cans. At the same time, it provides a valuable perspective on the man behind some of the most influential and recognizable art of the 20th century.