Andy Warhol

Celebrity frisson: new Andy Warhol photographs

Photographs by the wigged Sphinx of Manhattan are published by his old dealer

Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger has published a series of photos taken by Andy Warhol in the last ten years of his life: they read like a show biz diary of 80s New York, and prefigure the rise of photography as the dominant medium in contemporary art.

There are at least three ways of interpreting Warhol’s photographs taken between 1976 and 1987. The first is as studies: images used as works in progress; ideas and sketches for his famous emulsion prints. There are lots of these photographs of a logo or an object or of a subject taken over and over–typical products of the Warhol factory.

A second way of interpreting Warhol’s photography is as nostalgia. And it is perhaps with nostalgia in mind that these photographs have been grouped together and published by Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss dealer who had a long and fruitful collaboration with Warhol from 1965 onwards, when he held one of the first European shows dedicated to Pop Art. Bischofberger is a legend among dealers, even for that epic period of the roaring and rampant 80s. He appears in a group photo with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, who together with Warhol were employed by Bischofberger to carry out a series of three-man paintings.

The 80s were wild years, full of hedonism, and they saw the rediscovery of hedonism in art after a decade starved of it by the rigours of conceptualism. The Greek gods of that roaring New York scene were the black Dionysus Basquiat and the white Apollo Keith Haring. The latter was photographed by Warhol in 1985 in front of Mary Boone’s shop window in SoHo, before SoHo had been invaded by boutiques and fake Italian restaurants, and was still the hippest area of New York, a sort of pagan Vatican City in the Rome of 80s New York.

Warhol was quick to immortalise his chance meeting with Basquiat, who was still a graffiti artist living on the street. Keith Haring, who shared an early death with Basquiat, was considered the true heir to Warhol. Among the many portraits Warhol dedicated to his young colleague was one of him painting Grace Jones’s body, with her looking more cat-like than ever.

In the 80s these artists were superstars on a par with film stars, allowing Warhol easy access to photograph the famous: John Travolta at the height of his “Grease” fame, shown in full Texan kitsch, with cowboy shirt and Stetson; Sylvester Stallone posing topless in Rambo mode; and Mick Jagger. There are even infant prodigies, such as Miguel Barcel and Clemente. That sacred monster Joseph Beuys is photographed in front of his own photographic portrait in the Natural History Museum in New York and, among the literatti, Warhol snapped William Burroughs and Truman Capote. Icons, all of them, and ready to be transformed from photographic paper into Warhol’s trademark emulsion portraits.

“I have never believed in photography as art,” Warhol once said. And this brings us to the third interpretation, evoked in Bruno Bischofberger’s title for the series, “Visual Memory.” Warhol claimed to have abandoned his career as an advertising artist after realising that photography would be his dominant medium, at least 30 years before the current great vogue for photography among artists. As early as 1969, in the first issues of his magazine “Interview”, Warhol showed his interest in the photographic image, publishing works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts.

Bischofberger recalls, in the introduction of his book, the fatal moment in 1976 when Warhol abandoned the video camera with which he had begun his artistic career making experimental films and took up still photography. The fatal encounter took place in St. Moritz. While getting ready for one of Bischofberger’s shows, Warhol saw a 35mm Minox in the hands of photographer Thomas Ammann. It seemed to him “like a James Bond camera”, and he wanted one right away. Ammann, after a futile search in the shops of St Moritz and then Zürich, found one in Bonn. For Warhol, who up until then had used ready-made photographic images, this was a decisive turning point: from then on photography became his definitive media.

Warhol dabbled in different styles of photography , such as his self-portrait dressed as a Drag Queen, or his death mask modelled in 1980 (seven years before his death) or his references to “constructivist” photography in close-ups of pylons on Queensborough Bridge, or even his moody black and white street scenes à la Cartier Bresson. Warhol and Bischofberger were ahead of their time: photography today is one of the contemporary “fine arts.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 117 September 2001