Andy Warhol: The fame game

Cantor Arts Center presents rarely seen collection of contact sheets

Andy Warhol would have been 90 years old on Aug. 6 of this year. Had he lived, there is little doubt that he would be right at home with our image-obsessed society. Facebook, Instagram and selfies would have been his cup of tea. He was prescient in predicting our constant need to document everything we do in order to share it with the world. Evidence of just how much foresight he had can be seen in the Cantor Arts Center's major Fall exhibition, "Contact Warhol: Photography Without End," on view until Jan. 6, 2019.

The exhibition is not only a celebration of all things Warhol but also of the museum's impressive coup, the acquisition of 3,600 contact sheets and negatives from the Andy Warhol Foundation. The Cantor was chosen after a nation-wide competition because they agreed to research, catalog, house and make available the archive of 130,000 images to students and the general public, via an online database. The daunting task of organizing the contact sheets was undertaken by archivist Amy Di Pasquale, who spent almost three years examining the images. She explained that the unlabeled images included everything from the many parties Warhol attended to people he passed on the streets of New York City.

"He was Andy Warhol -- everyone wanted to perform for him," she said. "And he had a great eye." Luckily for De Pasquale, who had previously worked on a Warhol catalogue raisonne (a comprehensive list of all works by an artist), he kept meticulous diaries that detailed everything he did. "By referring to the diaries, I could identify an image based on where he was that day, and who was around him," she said. "For example, one day he noted that Henry Ford's son visited The Factory."

But how does a museum present a display of contact sheets in a way that will be interesting and not overwhelming? The exhibition design takes into account that tiny black-and-white images are only so compelling; seeing how they served as studies for the large-scale, boldly colored silkscreen paintings that Warhol is most famous for is fascinating.

Walking into the gallery, the visitor is struck by its feeling of openness, perhaps emulating The Factory, Warhol's notorious working space where his entourage and visiting celebrities mingled. Cases containing contact sheets line the walls, while enlarged versions of the images serve as a pictorial frieze at baseboard level. Hung above the cases are the silkscreens, on loan from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Penn. Most of these are portraits and are easily recognizable: Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, Michael Jackson -- the glitterati of the 1970s and '80s.

Peggy Phelan, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of theater studies at Stanford, explained that the loans from the Warhol Museum were important to include because, "They teach us so much about Warhol's method. The contact sheets allow us to see how he worked -- there are several 'guests' who wander in and out of the photo shoot (like John Lennon). So, while the photo shoot was in service of creating the Polaroid for the silkscreen, the contact sheets document the incredible density, indeed what I call the performance elements, of the photo shoot itself."

That performance element is nicely illustrated on a wall devoted to Deborah Harry. The cool, glamorous-yet-punk lead singer for the group Blondie was the perfect subject for the celebrity-crazed Warhol. The contact sheets reveal the singer posing, laughing and enjoying her time under the artist's scrutiny. In an accompanying video, we see Warhol in action, moving her head and body as he snaps away. The resulting silkscreen is an enigmatic portrait in mostly gray tones, except for a blood-red smear of lipstick; it's dramatic and very flattering.

Warhol clearly enjoyed being in the company of the "it" crowd, whether at Studio 54 or private gatherings with actors and writers. Look carefully at the contact sheets (made easier by an ingenious digital display that allows the viewer to enlarge the images on an overhead screen) and a time capsule (1976-87) of "who was who" can be observed: Carly Simon, Halston, Pee Wee Herman, Muhammad Ali and Truman Capote. Since he carried his Minolta 35EL (and later, a Polaroid camera) everywhere he went, Warhol was in a unique position to capture the exclusive world of the rich and famous. A quote on the wall, "I love going out every night," says it all -- this was an artist intent on leaving behind a voluminous trove of visual images that would presage our current cult of celebrity.

Other sections of the show detail his travels (his trip to China resulted in the uber-famous portrait of Mao) and his gradual acceptance of his homosexuality. A wall devoted to images of drag queens and gay sex is graphic and carries with it a disclaimer warning for young viewers.

Amid the superficial glitz and glamour, however, are several images that reveal more emotional depth. Street artist Keith Haring is captured with his lover, Juan Dubose, in a warm embrace in 1983. Knowing that Haring would die of AIDS just seven years later adds an extra poignancy to the portrait.

Perhaps the most revealing glimpse of the artist himself is a 1981 video in which Warhol appears fully made-up and wearing a blonde wig. Clad in jeans, a white shirt and tie, the artist preens and pouts and looks directly into the camera. Unlike the many other self-portraits in the exhibition, Warhol looks at ease and comfortable in this alter ego. Perhaps this is the person he wished he could be.

At the end of the exhibition is a haunting image that, in many ways, sums up the entirety of the show. Titled "After the Party," (1979), it is a silkscreen of a formal table setting. The plates and glasses, once so carefully placed, are now askew and empty. Emblematic of the waning days of disco, Studio 54, and all the unfortunate stars who became victims of AIDS, drug abuse and just old age, the print has a melancholic message. Warhol himself died of a botched gallbladder operation in 1987; by then the party was truly over.

People of a certain age may leave the exhibition with a feeling of nostalgia, remembering Warhol's subjects who are no longer alive. But fear not, our penchant for pop-culture idols continues unabated -- the Kardashians can confirm that. As Andy Warhol sagely noted, "Everyone needs a fantasy." True then and now.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: "Contact Warhol: Photography Without End."

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford.

When: Through Jan. 6., Wednesday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (open Thursdays until 8 p.m.).

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to Cantor Arts Center.

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