Warhol’s Rife Photos Augur Our Crummy Era

It was Barbara Rose, writing in New York magazine some 30 years ago, who described the late Andy Warhol (1928-87) as “the wealthy and fabulous queen of the New York art and fashion world,” and spoke of his studio, which he called the Factory, as “The Mirror of Our Time.” Well. It was certainly a mirror–or perhaps a photo shoot–of a certain segment of New York upper bohemia in the 1960’s, and Ms. Rose gave us a vivid account of it while being very careful not to make any outsize claims for Warhol as an artist.

“The Factory becomes a kind of super discotheque where the worlds of art and fashion meet,” she wrote. “There is a constant flow of young, beautiful, deranged creatures with glazed eyes, gyrating to records amplified to earsplitting loudness. Their lithe, skimpily clad bodies are showered with brilliant moving patterns of light reflected from the giant mirrored globe suspended from the ceiling. Poets and painters, models and millionaires twist, jerk, frug, shuffle, and boogaloo. A rock group called the Velvet Underground, after the title of a study in sadomasochistic practices, is installed in residence. Every night is Mardi Gras, Halloween, or Walpurgisnacht, depending on your point of view. The Factory is Bertolt Brecht’s decadent Mahagonny –the ‘City of Nets’ located in the state of anomie –where flesh, whiskey, drugs, action are all available for the asking.”

I recommend Ms. Rose’s essay on Warhol–it can be found in her book Autocritique (1988)–to anyone planning to see the exhibition called Andy Warhol: Photography at the new International Center of Photography. It is certainly more readable than the show’s bloated hardcover catalogue, which runs to some 400 pages, costs $75 plus tax and features, among much else, an essay by Mark Francis on “Still Life: Andy Warhol’s Photography as a Form of Metaphysics.” This remarkable text displays an intimate knowledge of the Warhol archives but not the slightest acquaintance with the arcana of metaphysics. But who cares? The title of the essay makes Warhol sound really deep, which is something his photographs were never meant to be. So does Mr. Francis’ claim that “Warhol comes closest to the position of the French photographer Eugène Atget, as espoused by the critic Walter Benjamin,” which is worse than nonsense. It amounts to a slander of Atget’s greatness, and dropping Walter Benjamin’s name into the discussion doesn’t lessen the offense.

Warhol is said to have taken more than 100,000 photographs as well as thousands of Polaroids and photo-booth strips, and there are some weary moments in the Andy Warhol: Photography show when the visitor begins to wonder if he is going to have to look at every last one of these mostly very dreary pictures. This fear proves to be unfounded, however, for the show itself is limited to a mere 300 or so photographs and photo-based images by, of, or otherwise “about” the life and career and special interests of Andy himself.

If the show feels physically larger than it actually is, it is probably because the tedium of its unrelieved narcissism sets in early with a section devoted to “Warhol as Icon for the Camera,” and you quickly come to understand that no other subject ever inspired as much tender feeling in Warhol as the fictional personae he invented for himself. Certainly the most poignant images in this exhibition are those of Warhol himself in drag as a Hollywood glamour girl.

What adds to the tedium, too, is the sheer junkiness of most of the pictures. Warhol took many of these pictures the way he tape-recorded other people’s conversations–more or less at random. When he invited people to “sit” for their camera portraits, the point seems to have been to make them look as banal or as bemused as possible. There are exceptions, to be sure–mostly in the pictures of beautiful young men, where the sexual interest elicited a more concentrated attention. Warhol seems to have been especially enchanted by the body of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the big black-and-white silkscreen portrait of the artist in a jock strap– Jean-Michel Basquiat (1984)–was clearly a labor of love. For us today, it is also a reminder that Basquiat paid a high price for the attention he received from Warhol and his circle–an early death from an overdose of drugs. But then, Basquiat was scarcely the only casualty of the Factory saturnalia.

The overall impression that one carries away from Andy Warhol: Photography is that of a huge merchandise mart of souvenirs from a now-distant period of history. About that aspect of Warhol’s work, Barbara Rose was also very shrewd. “The images he leaves,” she wrote in 1971, “will be a permanent record of America in the sixties: mechanical, vulgar, violent, commercial, deadly.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t only a huge inventory of images that Warhol left us. His deadly influence on the art scene remains his most significant legacy–more significant, certainly, than his photographs–and with the debased and debasing consequences of that legacy we are still contending today.

Andy Warhol: Photography , organized by Christoph Heinrich at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, remains on view at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Sixth Avenue at 43rd Street, through March 18.