February 21, 2010

Good and plenty: Warhol 's Polaroids at Bowdoin


To honor the 20th anniversary of Andy Warhol's death in 1987, the Warhol Foundation donated about 28,500 of the artist's 66,000 photographs to American colleges and universities. Forty of the 159 given to Bowdoin College are now on display at the college's Museum of Art, along with one very strong Basquiat painting.

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Jane Fonda, a Polaroid photograph by Andy Warhol

Courtesy of Bowdoin College

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Sylvester Stallone, a Polaroid photograph by Andy Warhol

Courtesy of Bowdoin College

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, 725-3275; www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum

WHEN: Through April 4

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday (until 8:30 Thursday); 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday



WHERE: University of Vermont Fleming Museum, 61 Colchester Ave., Burlington, Vt., (802) 656-2090; www.flemingmuseum.org

WHEN: Through April 25

HOURS: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday (until 8 Wednesday); 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

HOW MUCH: $5 adults, $10 family, $3 students and seniors

''Basquiat/Warhol'' is a brilliant – although tiny – show in the bedroom-sized Becker Gallery. Installed on super-saturated red and yellow walls, the show bristles with intensity and soars on the clarity of the pairing.

''Pre-Agrav'' by Warhol protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat greets anyone peering through the door with a powerful grimace. The painting's bold red, yellow, brown and blue elements emulate the linear graphics of graffiti (to a point) to show us the face of a man, teeth bared, brown-skinned and fundamentally angry. While rooted in the immediacy and politics of street art, Basquiat's work is just as tethered to the German neo-expressionism of George Baselitz.

The large painting echoes the 4-inch-square format of Warhol's Polaroids, which are framed individually and hung on two walls in a single, tight row.

Most striking about the photos are the sitters. Four in a row, for example, show Pia Zadora, Sylvester Stallone, Jane Fonda and Martha Graham. Also striking is Warhol's insistence on recipes: white makeup, standard red lipstick and even visible bits of the same cloth wrap used so women could be shot with bare shoulders and the semblance of nudity. The white makeup is only apparent after seeing a bunch of the images – which at first seem overexposed.

The visual effect washes out any wrinkle or blemish that would appear if/when the image was blown up into a signature Warhol silkscreen portrait painting. It also adds style.

Only some of Warhol's Polaroids resulted in portraits, but it makes sense to understand them in that context. Stripping your clothes off and having your makeup done à la Warhol was probably pretty exciting. Yet it also smacks of Warhol's conceptual gamesmanship in which everyone is somehow always complicit.

The University of Vermont's Fleming Museum opened a similar show in January featuring works from the 152 photographs given to them.

I was surprised at how different the shows felt. UVM displayed silver prints as well as Polaroids in vitrines, and it included a great deal of commentary with specific works – some of which is quite interesting. I particularly enjoyed the two sets of six Polaroids from which were made portraits of Frau Krull and Aenne Burda; the portraits are reproduced with the label copy.

UVM's approach makes for a more historical presentation that treats the photographs more like artifacts than works of art. At Bowdoin, Warhol's Polaroids stand on their own as works from the artist's oeuvre.

I prefer the Bowdoin show, but there is much to be said for both presentations. The Fleming clearly does a better job of introducing Warhol to the public, but the Bowdoin show celebrates an intriguing sense of mystery.

Warhol's own approach inspires a historical reading because of its focus on the moment: a skinny Jane Fonda with a comically huge '80s hairdo staring down the camera; a beefy Sylvester Stallone wearing only a gold chain and an Eric Estrada haircut. But to only see Warhol as reflecting a moment in time, such as the NYC cocaine club culture, is to miss his philosophical content.

The proliferation of images lies at the core of Warhol's fascination with celebrity and photography. His subject wasn't Marilyn Monroe per se, but the effect of the proliferation of her image.

Warhol's work is grounded in capitalism and the post-war America that he saw as a world of consumer culture. In many ways, his brand of pop art is social realism – but the flip side of the leftist social realism of Depression-era art. Warhol loved capitalism, and he rightly believed it loved him back.

There are few – if any – American artists more famous than Warhol. But his work is every bit as complicated as it is recognizable. It revels in a certain intellectual slipperiness that many people find distasteful. It seems so over the top in its worship of American culture and celebrity that we are certain it must be flip and cynical at a certain point – but we can never find that point.

Warhol was certainly a freak, but he was one of the most influential artists ever. His ''15 minutes of fame'' will live forever.

The Polaroid photograph was a perfect vehicle for Warhol not only because it was instantaneous, but because each is a unique original. Polaroids allowed Warhol a way to bring anyone who stepped into his infamous studio (''The Factory'') into the world and grasp of Andy Warhol – artist, celebrity, genius and provocateur.

The Bowdoin Museum of Art has a whole slate of good shows right now. I suggest you step into this one.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:



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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Pia Zadora, in the white makeup and red lipstick characteristic of Warhol’s Polaroid portraits.

Courtesy of Bowdoin College

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Warhol’s series of photos of fashion-magazine icon Aenne Burda is displayed at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum.

Courtesy of University of Vermont


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