Despite the fact that the New York Times lambasted the Whitney’s show “The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion” as a “blandly celebratory view of his work that feels a little too much of a piece with the art world’s recent and uncritical alliance with the fashion industry,” there are queues around the block to get into the museum and the Whitney reported record attendance in the first week. Can 2500 people per day be wrong?
One thing is certain, Andy Warhol himself would have welcomed both reactions, as well as his more than fifteen minutes of fame. In the decade since his death, the artist’s life-long preoccupations with fashion, celebrity and gender-bending pop culture, have made him a cult icon as famous as any he created and have also proved prescient images of a culture that feeds on fame. By the time he had turned the Silver Factory in Chelsea into a nonstop studio of style in the 1960s, Warhol himself never knew where the art stopped and the fashion began. It is this cultural cross-dressing (literally) which the current exhibition explores (until 18 January).
According to curator Mark Francis, the British director of the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s home town of Pittsburgh, the traditional view of Warhol was to see him as a good painter who “went slightly off in his later years.” It took a new generation of younger viewers to realise that it is impossible to make distinctions between his painting, film, photography and fashion, says Mr Francis.
“Warhol delves into the dark side of pop culture more deeply than most artists do. His work goes way beyond the art world.” This cross-over is epitomised in the section of the show devoted to the “Factory” years by a photograph of Warhol silk-screening onto a paper dress worn by his muse Nico, a singer for the Velvet Underground.
Mr Francis put this show together because fashion has never before been addressed as a theme constant throughout Warhol’s work. The artist began his career as a fashion illustrator in the 1950s and designed window displays for Horne’s department store in Pittsburgh. When he moved to New York he met Gene Moore, the legendary Bonwit Teller window dresser, who commissioned Warhol, as well as Johns, Rauschenberg and Rosenquist, to design window displays while they were all unknown artists. Recreations of these vitrines are a highlight of the exhibition.
Warhol also invented the reverse-pygmalion notion of the living person displayed as an artwork. For example, the Whitney displays a reconstruction of his 1985 vitrine at Club Aria, where he stood in the window as a living mannequin; a forerunner to artists such as Tilda Swinton, who slept in a showcase at London’s Serpentine Gallery a few years back.
Warhol’s fascination with Hollywood glamour takes up another section of the show. Besides the usual suspects some surprises pop up, such as a Gianni Versace “Liz” jacket, a beaded bolero decorated with Andy Warhol “Liz” prints and owned by Liz Taylor herself. “When I went to see Versace while I was planning the show, he loved the idea of looking at Warhol’s fashion,” says Mr Francis. “He met Warhol when he first came to New York and advertised in Interview Magazine, which Warhol started.”
Ultimately, Warhol was as obsessed with his own self-image as he was with that of others. His well-known 1962 work “Before and After” mocks nose job advertisements in women’s magazines, but also points to the artist’s own attempts to refashion himself (he underwent plastic surgery to attain his pixie nose and wore wigs to cover his baldness, many of which are on display).
This leads to the most radical part of the show—“Drag and Transformation”—chronicling the artist’s forays into this camp, homosexual subculture, which he recast as mainstream art. A clip from his film “Women in Revolt” featuring the drag queens Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, gives “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” a run for her money.
“He was constantly absorbed by transvestites at a time when it was not trendy,” explains Mr Francis. “Now it’s all over TV, from pop videos to special cable channels.”
Most Warhol obsessions are American obsessions, albeit about a decade early and in raw form. His art, whatever medium it uses, freeze-frames the superficial image on which the vast majority of popular culture—from politics to art to fashion—depends. He practically deified Jackie, Liz and Marilyn and could have invented Princess Diana. Warhol may point to art’s Faustian pact with fashion, but is it any wonder people wait for hours to get a closer look?
“The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion” travels to the Art Gallery of Toronto (16 Feb to 3 May; the Barbican Art Gallery, London ( 23 May to 16 August), the Musée de la mode in Marseilles (autumn 1998) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (winter 1998)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘From AbFab to rehab'