Andy Warhol’s Disguise and Revelation


There are innumerable pictures of Andy Warhol, almost all of which convey various degrees of discomfort. In a portrait by Helmut Newton, the artist sits on an armchair, holding various tape recorders, swaddled in a giant black scarf that looks as if it might choke him to death. When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Warhol near the end of his life, he was rendered a ghoulish deity; his silver wig and sickly skin blending into the halo that surrounded his face. Even in his self-portraits, he couldn’t get comfortable. He always looked startled, nervous, stilted; a little afraid of what the camera might reveal, especially to himself.

From 1971 to 1987, Warhol took nearly 40,000 Polaroids. A minuscule portion of these photographs, and photograph-inspired works, are on display at two Australian exhibitions: Andy Warhol & Photography: A Social Media at the Art Gallery of South Australia and Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection at the Home of the Arts (the latter of which includes a host of pop artists). Warhol’s Polaroid photography was one of his many mediums—but also a compulsion. It was a method to get close to, and, in some way, cannibalise icons he worshipped or figures he was enchanted by. But it also created a necessary wedge that divided him from others; many accounts of Warhol in the 70s and 80s describe the artist alone at parties, hiding behind his camera or recorder.

The Polaroids also served a practical purpose: they were the basis for his portrait painting and silk-screens. His process involved taking around 50 Polaroids of a subject, picking out the best image, and printing a silk-screen. His camera of choice was the ‘Big Shot’, a rudimentary hunk of plastic, that promised to produce portraits that the photographer “couldn’t mess up”. Warhol liked this ease, but also the camera’s washed-out, softening effect, which he said could dissolve any imperfections.

Steve Schapiro, born Brooklyn, New York, United States, 1934, died Chicago, Illinois, United States 2022, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and others at a party, 1965, New York gelatin-silver print, 31.5 x 47.1 cm (image), 40.0 x 49.9cm (sheet); Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, © estate of Steve Schapiro.

In his Polaroids, he made female celebrities look like embalmed dolls, partly caused by his habit of slapping white powder onto his sitter’s faces, disguising their suntans and wrinkles. There’s Liza Minelli, with her big doe-eyes, turning her head to face Warhol’s lens. There’s Debbie Harry, a glorious vision of cheekbones and pink eyeshadow. Dolly Parton is rendered as a frozen barbie doll, with a giant peroxide wig to rival Warhol’s own. I love these images, partly for their emphatic portrayal of glamour and death, but also the fantasy they provoke: that immortal fame and outsized beauty can be achieved simply through arrangement and presentation.

But is it pure fantasy? Warhol, the ultimate self-made cipher, understood intimately the power of display. His life followed the trajectory of a grim fairytale: a feeble child who transformed into a lonely, worshipped art star. For public consumption, he hollowed himself out: he desired to produce work like a machine (indifferent, devoid of emotion) and often evaded explaining himself and his work. He let the gaps speak for themselves. Like a kid’s colouring book, you could fill them in with whatever you wanted (and people have certainly tried: ‘Pinning Down Andy Warhol’ remains a cottage industry). His best celebrity images, be it quick Polaroids or giant silk-screens, share the quality that pervaded his persona: an affinity with surface pleasures, along with an embrace of the void.

This muddle of flesh and emptiness also extended to his depictions of the male body. Throughout his Polaroids was a legion of muscles, asses and genitalia. It is another compulsion: in his book Popism, Warhol details how male guests at The Factory were asked to take their pants off so he could photograph their genitals. This urge stretched back to his days as a commercial artist in the 50s, where he had sketching pads filled with drawings of male genetalia, some with hearts and little bows on them. I mention these anecdotes because Warhol is so often treated with dull, hallowed seriousness, but what made him brilliant was often his great impishness— he was never afraid of indulging in the strange pull of sexual fascination, with the camera performing a proxy intimacy that seemed lacking in his own life.

Oliviero Toscani, born Milan, Italy 1942, Andy Warhol, 1975, New York, United States of America, pigment print on paper, 32.0 x 46.0 cm (image), 40.0 x 50.0 cm (sheet), Public Engagement Fund 2021, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Oliviero Toscani.

These nude Polaroids severed the butt and torso from the rest of the body, through crops and close framing. They are imbued with both lust and envy. He was relentless in capturing the young, hot male figure, though, as he once remarked, he saw nudity as a “threat” to his existence. Only later in his life would he allow others to capture his body with a similar, scrupulous gaze, through a portrait by Alice Neel and in photographs by Richard Avedon.

In critic Wayne Koestenbaum’s great, cutting study of the artist, he writes how in Warhol’s work, masculinity was treated as vacuous and regularly depicted as caricature. Yet Warhol’s art that skirted the border of pornography is some of his most sublime; intimate flesh, relaxed or in motion, explored in its totality. “Warhol’s art was the sexualised body his actual body largely refused to be,” writes Koestenbaum.

What is contained in his Polaroids is that unavoidable, aching question of desire that stretches across sex and celebrity: do we want to be this person, or do we want to be with them? Warhol knew the answer was never just one or the other.

Andy Warhol & Photography: A Social Media
Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide SA)
3 March—14 May

Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection
Home of the Arts (Gold Coast QLD)
Until 4 June

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Isabella Trimboli