Has any artist ever been as successful at spinning his own myth as Andy Warhol?
His name alone conjures such vivid images: fright wigs, Campbell’s soup cans, celebrity portraits, and outrageous antics at the Factory from a rotating cast of self-proclaimed superstars such as Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling. Add in his astute social commentary, such as his observation about 15 minutes of fame, and you might conclude that the public perception of Warhol has been fixed for decades. This November, however, the Whitney Museum of American Art offers a major reassessment with “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” the first American retrospective of the artist in nearly 30 years. Featuring more than 350 works of art, ranging from paintings Warhol did in his childhood living room in Pittsburgh to his notorious films of the 1960s to his late-career collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, the exhibition will later travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
One of its most groundbreaking aspects will be the concentration on the least-known time of Warhol’s life, the 1950s. During his first decade in New York, he was a young commercial artist and an openly gay man, trying to turn himself into a fine artist. The Whitney show brings together about 70 Warhol works from that period: elegant drawings of shoes for advertising campaigns, ballpoint pen drawings of men in drag, fey illustrated books that he printed privately for friends, male nudes in gold leaf, a sketchbook of men’s torsos. The assumption has been that Warhol’s career as a serious artist began in the summer of 1962, with Irving Blum’s famous exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, in Los Angeles, of 32 soup cans, but the Whitney show allows the earlier paintings, drawings, and commercial work to be seen in a new context. “This early period was critical for Warhol,” says Neil Printz, the editor of the artist’s catalogue raisonné. “It was instrumental and utterly productive.” Blake Gopnik, who has spent years researching a biography of the artist, to be published next fall, believes that past discussions of the period, especially in the context of the hyper-conservative McCarthy era, have been off base. “What truly matters about Warhol’s 1950s drawings is the brazenly gay content they carry,” Gopnik says. “The very banality of their style lets them function as a transparent carrier, you could say, for their queer themes.”
Warhol burst onto the New York scene at the height of Abstract Expressionism. The art critic Harold Rosenberg, in a famous 1952 essay, was rhapsodic about the rugged individualism of new American artists such as Jackson Polloc, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. What he called “Action Painting” meant macho artists who employed bold, abstract themes and were physically engaged with massive canvases. Warhol’s approach could not have been more different. “Unlike Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, Warhol is not working in a burst of unconsciousness,” observes Donna De Salvo, a Whitney deputy director and curator of the Warhol exhibition. “In the lead-up to the 1960s, he is developing a very careful understanding of how you construct a painting, of how you construct an identity, whether it is for a product—a perfume, a can of soup—or a Hollywood star.”
Warhol arrived in New York in the summer of 1949, when he was just 21 years old. On his second day in the city, he approached Tina Fredericks, the well-known art director of Glamour magazine, who told him that she was looking for drawings of shoes and that she needed them the next morning. She hired Warhol on the spot; his first illustrations appeared in the magazine’s September issue, depicting five red pumps ascending the ladder of success. His rise as a commercial artist was meteoric. He regularly illustrated articles for Glamour, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle, and drew album covers for Columbia records. By 1955, he was the sole illustrator for the prestigious ads for I. Miller & Sons shoes, which appeared on the society pages of The New York Times. By the mid-’50s, particularly in the New York fashion world, Warhol had arrived. As a New Year’s gift in 1957, he sent Diana Vreeland, who was at the time the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, a small book of 18 delicately colored lithographs, 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy. “How much I appreciate the book I have on my desk of the delicious cats,” Vreeland wrote Warhol. “Your drawings are so charming.”
At the same time that he was making elegant, whimsical drawings of smiling perfume bottles for magazines, Warhol was exploring more personal work, such as sexy portraits of tattooed sailors and fanciful drawings of gold slippers that he named after such iconic figures as Mae West and Zsa Zsa Gabor. But his first attempts to move into the realm of fine art were not successful. In the mid-1950s, Warhol was commissioned for the first time by the department store Bonwit Teller to create displays for its windows on Fifth Avenue. His installation appeared next to that of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, artists just as unknown as Warhol, who worked together under the pseudonym of Matson Jones. Hoping that the visibility would lead to important gallery exhibitions, Warhol used a photograph of a man in drag posed as a fashion model. Even other gay artists were horrified. As Warhol later recalled, “Bob and Jasper came and looked at what I was doing and laughed at me. They pointed their fingers and laughed—they were so mean.” As De Salvo, who met Warhol in the mid-’80s and has become one of the leading experts on his early work, characterizes the incident: “Andy was too swish and chichi for Bob and Jasper.”
Considering that homosexuality was against the law in the U.S. in the 1950s, and certainly not accepted in the New York art world, Warhol was remarkably open about being gay (an essay in the Whitney catalog about those years is cheekily titled, “Picture Portraits: Miss Warhol Knows What the Client Wants”). “Being gay was absolutely vital to who Warhol was in 1950s New York, to how he was seen—both for better and worse—and to the art he made,” Gopnik points out. “All his attempts at making serious art in that era involved imagery that still reads as gay to us and screamed it in the 1950s. That made his art highly appreciated in the gay world around Warhol and almost intolerable, and mostly incomprehensible, to mainstream straights.” The subjects of Warhol’s drawings were often men in drag. He did not hesitate to depict two men kissing or, it is said, to ask nearly any man he met if he could draw his cock. His first exhibition of art, in 1952 for the openly gay Alexander Iolas at the Hugo Gallery, in New York, was called “Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.” “An air of carefully studied perversity,” a leading art critic deemed it.
Warhol hung out at Serendipity 3, a quasi-gay restaurant filled with Art Nouveau objects on East 58th Street, but the key figure in his life at that time was the photographer Otto Fenn. During the 1940s, Fenn had been the longtime assistant of Louise Dahl-Wolfe, traveling with her to Paris to photograph the collections with the Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow. In New York, Fenn continued to work with Dahl-Wolfe and George Hoyningen-Huene, before beginning his own career as a photographer. By the time Fenn and Warhol became friends, in 1951, the photographer had set up a large studio on East 58th Street. The locus of a lively scene, the Otto Fenn studio attracted some of the more creative gay men from the worlds of fashion, dance, and theater. Fenn would drag up with wigs, strands of pearls, and fishnet hose, taking scores of technically sophisticated self-portraits in outrageous poses. He hosted private parties, such as the Sapphire Ball, with guests in drag, black tie, or skimpy beefcake looks—all dancing together. “Fenn may not have quite taught Warhol the ropes of queer life in New York,” Gopnik says, “but he showed him what success and sophistication could look like in that world.”
For the young Warhol, the Fenn studio became a place of festive, artistic collaboration. He helped create backdrops for Fenn’s shoots, with colorful butterflies and flowers. And Fenn’s photographs became the basis of Warhol drawings, including Dancing Couple, 1953, of two men, and Variation of Lady M, 1953, of Fenn in a sort of half-drag with a shawl, a long cigarette holder, and a bit of a mustache. It is not surprising that the little-known scene has become a new area of interest. This fall, the German art historian Nina Schleif published Andy Warhol, Drag & Draw: The Unknown Fifties, exploring Warhol’s drawings, Fenn’s life and career, and the remarkable gay world they inhabited. “The Fenn studio shows Warhol being the social observer, focused on all of these different cultures, subcultures, all of these circles of people,” De Salvo says. “And I am sure it was a great outlet for him too, because during the day, he had to do what the art directors wanted. Here he was free.” De Salvo even sees a connection between the scene at Fenn’s and the Factory that Warhol launched the following decade. “The Factory was a lot of kids, all finding a place where they could perform as themselves. The Otto Fenn salon gave Warhol a taste of that—what could happen when you bring a group of people together. Otto was the instigator in the ’50s in the way that Warhol was in the ’60s, letting it happen but engineering it at the same time.”
Although there is overt homoeroticism in much of Warhol’s personal art in the ’50s, later in the decade it is often disguised. “It is the beginning of seeing how Warhol, as the years go on, and his style emerges into the Pop art that we know, has this layered language,” De Salvo explains. “Marilyn Monroe can be read multiple ways. Elvis Presley can be read multiple ways. And the early Popeye, Superman, and Dick Tracy paintings—it is interesting that he focuses on these archetypes, all of these straight, powerful guys. Everything has multiple meanings, and this notion of his sexuality—of gay sexuality—continues to be coded, obscured, but it’s there, depending on who is reading it.”
In addition to the drawings and collages, the Whitney exhibition will also showcase some striking examples of Warhol’s paintings from the 1950s. Portrait of John Butler With Dancer, 1952, is a brightly colored canvas depicting a star dancer for Martha Graham. Already, says De Salvo, you can see Warhol using different types of technologies—the Photostat, the opaque projector. “He is not the only one doing that—Franz Kline, de Kooning, and a number of artists were using it as a tool to enlarge images. But Warhol became very comfortable with that in commercial design.” Other important paintings from the era include Two Heads, 1957, showing two men about to kiss in front of a stenciled background, and Dancing Children, 1954–1957, of several children floating in the center of the canvas surrounded by black stencil. The gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who owns Dancing Children and has loaned it to the show, observes that the painting “shows that Andy was already deeply engaged with the artistic concepts that characterized his mature work, even when he was considered to be more of an illustrator than an artist. Every element of the painting is made with a mechanical process. The imagery prefigures his ‘Rorschach’ paintings of 30 years later.”
The Whitney is not the first to examine Warhol’s early career. De Salvo has been responsible for four other Warhol exhibitions, including a show in 1986 at the Dia Art Foundation, followed in 1989, two years after Warhol’s death, by another, at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Vincent Fremont, of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, has likewise curated several shows of the early works, primarily in London, including at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1994, and at Sadie Coles HQ in 2003. “He said he couldn’t draw, that he had a shaky hand,” recalls Fremont, who began working with Warhol in 1969. “But I watched him—he was a tremendous draftsman. Andy didn’t like to be pigeonholed, so he often put up a smoke screen. It was usually a put-on, but many made the mistake of believing him.”
With the Warhol show taking over nearly three floors at the Whitney, making it the largest devoted to a single artist in the new downtown building, which opened in 2015, De Salvo believes that this more complete picture will deepen the understanding of his development into one of the most important postwar artists, particularly for those yet to be convinced of Warhol’s seriousness as an artist. It’s a big Warhol moment: In addition to the Whitney show, the Dia Art Foundation will present Warhol’s Shadows, 1978–1979, a monumental painting in multiple parts, at the Calvin Klein headquarters in New York, through December 15. “There are the naysayers who really hate Warhol, who saw him as someone who introduced a crass commercialism, who blurred the line between art and commerce,” De Salvo says. “I think he was making an honest statement about the nature of the United States, which is now true in a way it could not have been imagined in the 1960s. I can’t convince the people who do not want to be convinced, and that’s fine. He’s a provocative figure—he provoked.”