Andy Warhol’s instant photos

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Andy Warhol’s instant photos

Andy Warhol once said that he didn’t believe in art, but that he did believe in photography. Though he never called himself a photographer, Warhol certainly lived by that belief, shooting an extensive amount of Polaroids ―more than 100,000 of them in the last 10 years of his life.
“Andy Warhol: Polaroid Photos and Silkscreen Prints,” an exhibition at Juliana Gallery in Cheongdam-dong, brings Warhol’s Polaroid images to Seoul for the first time. Some of them were shot by Warhol as one step in the creation of his famous silkscreen print portraits (some of which are included in the exhibit). Others stand on their own, as small works of art that show a different side of the iconic artist.
The use of photographs might seem an obvious practice for an artist for whom portraiture was so central. Yet his images merit special attention, both because of Warhol’s status within Pop Art and because he used portrait photography to faithfully represent his subjects’ identity, as opposed to the celebration of celebrity found in the silkscreen portraits.
Throughout his career, Warhol cultivated his image as a superstar, casting a certain ambiguity upon his artistic persona. He frequented celebrities’ parties, created their portraits and, late in life, went so far as to have his own show on MTV. He created repetitive images of famous people and brand-name products to make a point about the disposable nature of modern consumerism, though it was never quite clear in his works whether he was criticizing or idealizing his subjects.
Yet there is something about Warhol’s Polaroid images that stand apart from his larger works. For one thing, they speak more intimately to the viewer.
In style, they are nowhere near the glamorous silkscreen prints that earned Warhol worldwide fame. In technique, they are far removed from more traditional methods of photography, which tend to strive for an artful angle from which to depict a subject. There is an element to his Polaroids that is very raw and immediate, a quality that leads a viewer to believe that there is actual truth here ― quite in contrast to Warhol’s other works.
An example is a series of self-portraits he shot shortly before he died in 1987. These are shocking images of death and anxiety, as if the artist had predicted the sudden conclusion of his life (the result of botched hospital care). In one, Warhol is looking straight into the camera, the backdrop a dark void, eyes showing signs of deep apprehension. In another picture, he poses with a human skull on top of his head.
Critics have said that Warhol’s photography was informed by his deep skepticism about the accuracy with which the medium recorded the world. The use of Polaroids, of course, gives the photographer only minimal control, making it perhaps inevitable that his depiction will be as close to the reality as possible.
Yet the simplicity of the medium, which allows for quick, easy shots, is significant in the context of Warhol’s work, because of its relation to the instant pleasures we get from our disposable surroundings, pleasures like television, fast food and fame (which Warhol saw as the pinnacle of modern consumerism). This comes back to Warhol’s interest in the American obsession with celebrity, which he dealt with extensively in his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup cans and other modern icons.
Some of the Polaroids are of celebrities in formal sittings; these were used in making commissioned portraits, and feature such subjects as Jane Fonda and Queen Margaret II of Denmark. Others were taken at informal gatherings of friends, or at parties at his studio, offering a glimpse into the artist’s personal life and his career heyday in the 1960s and ’70s.
The occasional silliness in the photos, such as the odd hairstyles Warhol gives himself in some self-portraits, is more haunting than childish, overall. The photos in general evoke sharp tensions of the moment, and provoke a viewer’s curiosity about the context in which they were taken.
Some of Warhol’s self-portraits with a fright wig, which were deliberately set up to resemble stills from a horror film, borrow techniques from modern art masters like Edward Munch. Indeed, between 1982 and 1986, Warhol produced a series of prints based on Munch’s canonic images, one of which is titled “The Scream (After Munch).”
There is some irony in the fact that Warhol’s first exhibition of Polaroids in Korea is being staged in one of the country’s glitziest commercial districts, known for its appreciation of luxury and fame. The works of Warhol evoke a bitter aftertaste in the context of the high-end shops and celebrity fashion billboards that surround Juliana Gallery, and raise the question ―not for the first time, when it comes to Andy Warhol ―of whether the artist’s works are criticisms of the vanity of consumerism, or just fashion accessories for our disposable pleasure.

by Park Soo-mee

“Andy Warhol; Polaroid Photos and Silkscreen Prints” runs through Nov. 15 at Juliana Gallery in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. For more information, call (02) 514-4266.
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