Between 1970 and 1987, Andy Warhol took thousands of pictures using his Polaroid Big Shot -- a camera designed specifically for portraits, with a fixed focal distance of about four feet -- capturing a variety of subjects, including intimate, closely cropped portraits. Many of these images were subsequently used in Warhol's silkscreened paintings and prints. Eight years earlier, in 1962, the artist Ray Johnson, a lesser-known contemporary of Warhol who has been called the initiator of mail art, started his network of art-by-post, the New York Correspondance School (deliberately misspelled by the artist). Johnson's "school" and correspondence-based art projects continued until his death in 1995.
Two new MATRIX exhibitions, Andy Warhol: Polaroids and Tables of Content: Ray Johnson and Robert Warner Bob Box Archive, present these artists side by side, in a single gallery space separated by a sheer black screen. The arrangement invites the viewer to compare the work of these contemporaries, and there are interesting parallels between them despite the obvious material and formal differences of their respective practices. Most noticeable in the work on view at UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) is Warhol's and Johnson's shared preoccupation with wealth and celebrity, subjects they each treat with fascination and unease.
Drawing on the more than one hundred Polaroids and gelatin-silver prints that comprise a gift to BAM/PFA from the Andy Warhol Foundation, curators Stephanie Cannizzo and Fabian Leyva-Barragan selected forty Polaroids, representing an array of Warhol's "beautiful people," a mix of famous faces and virtual unknowns who met Warhol's loose criteria (he maintained that every person he met was a beauty).1 Warhol would take up to hundreds of shots to get just the right image, and each portrait is a document of the intimate exchange between sitter and photographer.
That Warhol would consider subjects who were slightly defeated and fragile is exemplified in an ambiguous portrait, Frau Buch (1980). Frau Buch's painted red lips yield a slight, apprehensive smile. Her curly black hair echoes the fur of the poodle she clutches. Warhol has captured the vulnerability of a sitter who appears uncomfortable in front of a camera but wants to be seen nonetheless. In contrast are the Polaroids of an arts patron, Daryl Lillie (1978), who wears the thick white stage makeup that Warhol consistently used for female sitters to soften the flash and conceal wrinkles. The makeup's effect flattens the image and acts like a mask, a barrier between Lillie and the camera. Despite Lillie's awkward, caked makeup, with splotches of it visible on her chest, her gaze remains open and confident. She appears comfortable in front of the camera and in Warhol's presence.
Man O'War, Ray Johnson, 1971, 1988, 1994; Museum purchase, bequest of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, by exchange.
Like Warhol's oeuvre, Johnson's work is filled with references to art world and Hollywood celebrities, but his approach is distinctly iconoclastic. In keeping with Johnson's offhand aesthetic, the display of his Bob Box Archive is quite casual. Hundreds of offbeat items (letters, beach toys, garbage, and everyday objects) are arranged, stacked, and piled on an assortment of tables in the center of the gallery. On one table, discarded items -- including an old pair of sunglasses, pieces of rope, a dirty glove, and rocks -- are piled high atop a tattered fragment of an American flag.
Johnson pokes fun at major art world figures and movements, eschewing allegiance to any of them. On the right wall of the gallery, a row of letters between Johnson and the optician Robert Warner includes images of movie stars or artists such as James Dean or Jackson Pollock that are photocopied, scribbled over, and written on. A drawing of a bunny sporting a large hoop earring is assigned the name Max Ernst. It hangs between a drawing of Philip Guston's upside-down bathtub and a collage that combines a newspaper clipping of a chimpanzee sitting in a restaurant with an image of a bicycle seat.
Bunny motifs are an ongoing theme for Johnson. One letter to Warner is composed of a grid of cute bunnies with the names of famous and unknown people assigned to each one. Cartoon speech bubbles along the top announce the "Locust Valley Biennale 1990" (after he was mugged in New York in 1968, Johnson retreated to the quiet suburb of Locust Valley). Johnson and Warner are included in the cast of bunnies, along with a mix of names from high and low culture, including Christo, Gary Larson, John Tesh, Betsey Johnson, Louise Bourgeois, and Sean Penn.
Warhol's and Johnson's artworks reveal their complicated and conflicted relationships to the elite, powerful, and influential figures who frequently appear as subjects of their admiration and derision. The intimate quality of Warhol's Polaroid portraits relies heavily on the relationship he cultivated with each subject, and it is this intimacy that makes them unique within his body of work. Meanwhile, Johnson's commentary on New York's art and social scenes is so readily transparent because of the distance he kept from those worlds.
Andy Warhol: Polaroids and Tables of Content: Ray Johnson and Robert Warner Bob Box Archive are on view at UC Berkeley Art Museum through May 20, 2012. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.
1. Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again) (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 61.