On the Surface

Courtesy of the Smart Museum

The King of Pop Art usually brings to mind Campbell’s, bananas, Marilyns and trippy freshman dorm room posters. But the public’s perception of Andy Warhol is quite different from the artist’s perception of himself.  In a 1980 journal entry he wrote, “I told them I didn’t believe in art, that I believed in photography.” This credo manifests itself in the Smart Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “Warhol at Work: Portrait Snapshots 1973-1986.”

In a tiny gallery room, the exhibition grants the viewer a rare glimpse into Warhol’s life through a series of rare Polaroids and gelatin silver prints. While many of these photos served as the template for Warhol’s most iconic images, “Warhol at Work” presents the artist as a photographer and reproduces a visual diary of his life and work process.

In 1972, Warhol acquired the smallest camera he could find and carried it with him wherever he went. He shot and processed at least one roll of film a day. “Having a few good rolls of film to develop gives me a good reason to get up in the morning,” he said. In the Smart gallery, gelatin silver prints of anonymous intersections, people, and buildings cover the walls. Close-ups of streetside billboards and advertisements reveal underlying pop art references.

Warhol’s own visage is the prelude to the series. His iconic shock of platinum hair stands on end above glowering eyes that sink into inky shadow. The hazy photograph evokes the obsession, depth, and perhaps even torment that fueled Warhol’s artistic process.

The back wall is covered in a yearbook-spread of head shots of celebrities and members of the art world. These photos were used as studies for Warhol’s iconic screen prints and offer visual testimony to his obsessive attention to detail. The figures are perfectly centered; their bodies do not escape the confines of the print. The work exudes a candid, intimate feeling but also one of careful orchestration, as sitters pose with their shoulders angled, oftentimes holding props. Indeed, these sessions took on a ritualistic nature: Warhol and the sitter would have dinner, chat, and then proceed to take hundreds of photographs. Out of the hundreds, Warhol and the sitter would pick one to produce–and reproduce–as a pop art print.

The climactic moment in the exhibition is a 1981 screen print entitled “Witch.” To the left of the piece is the small Polaroid square that inspired it: a profile portrait of Margaret Hamilton, the actress made famous by her iconic role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” By the time the Polaroid was taken Hamilton, pushing 80 years of age, was not the frightening character of childhood nightmares. She dons a witch’s hat in her snapshot, but her eyelids hang heavy with age and her sallow skin is flecked with age spots and wrinkles. Using the Polaroid shot as a foundation, Warhol reworked Hamilton’s image and restored her iconic status as Witch. The finished screen print is a sickening triumph in lime green, purple, and black. Her mouth is agape in an infinite cackle–“I’ll get you my pretty!” Hanging next to the Polaroid, Hamilton becomes immortalized in diamond dust and bright tempera hues, revitalized and glamorized.

There is a sense of voyeurism in the Polaroids of “Warhol at Work.” The sitters–socialites, art dealers, an anonymous male derrière, two phalluses, a cross-dresser, Diana Ross’s daughter, and OJ Simpson–appear vulnerable and defenseless, staring directly into the camera’s lens. A few faces are caked with heavy white stage makeup, lending them a ghost-like two-dimensionality. Warhol once said, “Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.” And looking around the gallery, it is clear there is a lot of surface to cover.

Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through August 21. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 10am-8pm; Saturday & Sunday 11am-5pm; Thursday 10am-8pm. Free. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu