Contacting Warhol

Andy Warhol: New York street scenes with trash, bundles of newspaper at curb for pickup; Sign: “Leash, gutter, and clean up after your dog”; Andy Warhol and Christopher Makos with man in plaid shirt; Black-tie party with Halston, Andy Warhol, Lauren Hutton, Peter Beard, Calvin Klein, Ron Galella, 1982, gelatin silver print. Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.


In 1976 Andy Warhol acquired a simple 35mm camera and began to photograph. And photograph. He shot over ten thousand images every year until his death in 1987. Some of these exposures became the basis for silkscreen paintings. Most of the negatives, however, were printed only as contact sheets, grids of thumbnail images that were often marked with grease pencil to indicate selections for later printing. In 2014, Stanford University received some thirty-six hundred of these contact sheets from the Andy Warhol Foundation. This trove forms the basis of “Contact Warhol: Photography Without End” (on view through January 6, 2019), an exhibition organized by Richard Meyer and Peggy Phelan at the university’s Cantor Arts Center. (The archive can also be viewed on Stanford’s website.) The contact prints offer a glimpse of Warhol’s social life at a time when he was immersed in a world of celebrity and glamour. Yet Warhol also captured mundane scenes on the streets of New York and low-key afternoons with his boyfriend, Jon Gould. Here, Phelan and Meyer discuss their cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the contact sheets as a both a raw archive of one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists and the outcome of a veritable performance of habitual recording that Warhol sustained for more than a decade.    –Eds.

PEGGY PHELAN  One of the first questions Richard and I confronted, given the size of the archive, was about the ontological status of a contact sheet. Richard, coming from art history, was very much of the position that these were not works of art, that they were more or less studies or rehearsals that were never intended to be exhibited. For me, coming from performance studies, they were immediately recognizable as primary works of art.

RICHARD MEYER Warhol had one of the most expansive definitions of art you could imagine, but even for him the contact sheets were not works of art. They were not exhibited, editioned, or sold; some were given away or perhaps lost. I saw these as important documents of Warhol’s social and professional world in the 1970s and ’80s, a visual diary of sorts. But not as materials that constituted art or even museum-worthy artifacts.

At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of exposures, of which there are around a hundred and thirty thousand. Some of these are over- or underexposed, or awkwardly cropped or out of focus. Many depict seemingly marginal aspects of a scene: people asleep on an airplane flight or an expanse of paisley carpeting in a hotel room. Even when the people in Warhol’s photographs were extraordinary, they were most often doing ordinary things: Truman Capote lying down on a couch or Robert Rauschenberg standing, with his back to the camera, at a urinal.  Initially, I didn’t have the imaginative or intellectual vision to see how compelling the contact sheets actually were—or could be—if they were understood in the right way.

PHELAN In 2018 we’re all archivists of our own lives in a certain way. Warhol was doing this beginning in 1976. Whatever else happened in a day, he shot one roll of film, often more, and he continued doing so until his death in ’87. Taking these photographs was an eleven-year-long performance practice, a durational performance devoted to framing, clicking, and preserving photographs of his daily life.

When Stanford acquired the contact sheets, the Warhol Foundation gave legal permission for the university to process exposures that had not been separately printed during Warhol’s life. And we produced numerous prints for the exhibition. Thirty to forty years separate the clicking of the shutter from the printing of these photographs, which forces us to confront the odd temporality of photography in general.

The subtitle of the show and the book is “Photography Without End,” which gets at serialization and reproducibility, issues that were central to Warhol’s art more generally. But to sharpen some of the issues we faced in thinking about the contact sheets, we invented the category “Warhol/Not Warhol” to indicate that the photographic exposure was Warhol’s but that the selection of the print was ours. I found the idea that we were engaging with art he created in his lifetime but had existed largely unseen in latent form in the photographic archive extremely motivating. Of course, our “Warhol/Not Warhol” prints adhere to certain strictures defined by the foundation. They can’t be bigger than 8 by 10 inches. The label has to be very precise. It’s not like we’re flooding the Warhol market with fakes.

MEYER  These prints have no insurance value and are never to be sold. As specified by the Warhol Foundation, they are to be designated as “studio prints” in the Cantor’s collection. But these images were initiated by Warhol when he pushed the shutter release of his camera. They are Warhol’s in the sense that he made the photographic impression. And they’re not Warhol in the sense that they would not exist had we not printed—and in that sense, finished—them thirty years later.

Warhol appears in many of the exposures and he was not using a shutter release cable or a timer. He was not taking selfies. Instead, he handed the camera to someone else—a friend, assistant, or new acquaintance. But all the exposures on every contact sheet are now attributed to Warhol. As Peggy pointed out to me during our research, that’s sort of how cell phone cameras work. If you bring a cell phone to a party, all the pictures are yours even if you pass the phone around for other people to photograph you or other people.

The Cantor collection also includes stitched photographs, which are among the last works that Warhol did before he died. At his direction, Michele Loud, an assistant, would stitch together four, six, eight, or twelve duplicate copies of a print. She used a sewing machine, but, at Warhol’s instruction, left ends of thread visible. And the seams are not perfectly symmetrical. You have the sense of a hand, of the craft of sewing, going together unexpectedly with a grid of mechanically made, infinitely reproducible images.

PHELAN  The first show of the stitched photos was at Robert Miller Gallery in 1987. It was right before Warhol died, his last New York show. And it sold really well. Warhol was very excited and said he was going to continue in this direction. The stitched photos are a kind of enlargement of the grid of the contact sheet. Warhol, or possibly one of his assistants, Christopher Makos or Ronnie Cutrone, would circle some individual frames on the contact sheet, selecting them for printing. In the exhibition we show the contact sheets that have been circled (but we often selected and printed different frames ourselves). In the catalogue I wrote about the white threads on the stitched photos as a kind of psychoanalytic displacement of the pencil mark on the contact sheet. There’s another emotional aspect of this that’s quite amazing: as Richard suggested, one feels the effect of the hand in the act of machine stitching, just as one can feel the effect of Warhol’s hand in the mechanical “errors” of his camera.

MEYER  When I saw the stitched photographs in the late 1980s, I thought they were hack work that allowed Warhol to commodify his photographs as art. But now, thirty years later, they have become fascinating to me, in part because of the surprising conditions under which some of them were created. After Warhol’s death, his estate discovered duplicate photographic prints that the artist intended to be stitched together. In 2014 the Warhol Foundation decided to have these prints stitched by the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. The resulting works are attributed to Warhol with an explanatory note that they have been posthumously printed by the Foundation, and they are dated 1987/2014. And what does that mean? Warhol dies, and yet he doesn’t die. He finishes the work from beyond the grave. It is attributed to Warhol, along with a note that says, “completed by the Andy Warhol Foundation.”

We are not the only ones producing new “Warhols.” They’re being created by the Warhol Foundation. If an artist intends to complete a work but then dies, that means the work is not completed. Death is a part of history. You don’t just finish the work for him because that’s what he wanted—unless it says in the will please stitch these for me, which Warhol’s didn’t. Even for an artist who wanted, or at least said he wanted, his work outsourced—that he wanted someone else to make his paintings for him, and who did turn to many other people for ideas—this posthumous creation challenges the artist’s individual authority over his production. On one level, this seems appropriate to Warhol who, more than any other artist in the twentieth century, challenged the very idea of artistic authority. At the same time, he was very careful about branding his name and employing his signature to seal the authenticity of his work.

We began to see that Warhol’s interest in gridding and repetition and difference—in exact repetition but with a difference—applied not only to the contact sheets but to the works he made from the contact sheets. In the show we do have a contact sheet of a young man, naked, kind of rolling around on the ground in all thirty-six exposures. And then Warhol takes one of those images and makes a stitched photograph of it, so it’s almost as though he’s transposing the logic of the contact sheet onto the sewn work. But because of the stitching—and sometimes because of the printing, of how much exposure there is, how much light there is—very slight differences appear from one print to another.

PHELAN  A central paradox in Warhol studies is that his very ease across mediums sometimes leads people to assume he was shallow, flitting like a humming bird from ad work to painting to silkscreening to music, fashion, film, and so on. The assumption is that he was a kind of “jack of all trades, master of none.” Those who believe that will find evidence in the Warhol archive to sustain that assumption—the range of what interested him is, again, immense.

And yet the contact sheets also show the incredible relentlessness of his central interests. There is a truly coherent Warhol, in which you can see the same sensibility, from the early Pop work all the way through ’87. That has not been the dominant narrative of Warhol studies. The contact sheets make it pretty clear, to me anyway, that he had a quite coherent sensibility. If he hadn’t made it as a fine artist or a commercial artist he would have been a hell of a photo editor. He has an extraordinary eye.

MEYER  I don’t think that the most interesting frames in the contact sheets were always selected for printing. Maybe a better way to put it is that I’m not always sure what the criteria for interestingness was for Warhol. At a dinner party, he would sometimes photograph the remains of the meal, taking a picture of food-strewn plates and abandoned glasses of wine. Rather than dinner guests (which is what you might expect to see), you get a a half-eaten dinner. Or Warhol would photograph a trash dumpster full of sundry refuse. Or some ceramics and old blankets at a flea market. As he said, “I always like to work on leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good I always thought had a great potential to be funny.” Warhol focuses on things that you might not expect him to care about, until you remember the profound interest in everyday life (even if it’s Liza Minnelli’s everyday life) and commonplace objects that runs throughout his career. He said that he wanted to paint the ordinary not to make it extraordinary, but to make it “ordinary-ordinary.” Once something has become “ordinary-ordinary” rather than just “ordinary,” you can’t help but see it differently.

PHELAN  I don’t think we’re actually too far apart. When he’s taking photographs of flea markets, he’s taking hundreds. Or if he’s photographing trash, it’s bags and bags of trash. I still think he’s an extraordinary photographer. He demonstrates he has mastered the genres of art photography completely: Atget’s street scenes, Walker Evans’s vernacular, Richard Avedon’s portrait style, Diane Arbus’s revitalization of the concept of “the freak” are all alluded to explicitly in the contact sheets.

Part of what makes Warhol so extraordinary is the way he expands what it means to be a photographer. The act of picking up the camera itself, focusing or not focusing, and clicking the shutter—that is the primary art. Through repetition, producing the incredible number of frames we have, this photographic art becomes a performative practice that can be linked to durational performances by Tehching Hsieh, Linda Montano, or other artists who created multiyear works.

But that’s not the only frame to illuminate these works. In poststructuralism and postmodernism there’s a lot of knee-jerk attention to his pursuit of repetition for its own sake. But Warhol’s fascination with serialization and repetition is central to how he viewed the world. And in my view, it’s tied up with his being shot. According to Western metaphysics, we have one death and it occurs in the future. Warhol was pronounced dead several times the day Valerie Solanas shot him, but he survived those announced deaths and lived for nineteen more years.

For him, death’s special status as a once-in-a-lifetime event is no longer valid, propelling his fascination with repetition as a life force. His emphasis on the ordinary repetitions of everyday life is part of a more relentless assault on the belief in a unique experience. You could also think about Warhol’s indefatigable repetition in terms of a spiritual, almost Zen-like practice: breathing in, breathing out, over and over, consciously. It’s very significant that a lot of this work occurred under the dense canopy of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Working against the once-in-a-lifetime event of death, there’s a relentless repetition of the life drive that is always at work in the archive.

MEYER One section of the show is called “Figment,” and it’s based on a quote: “I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment.’” Warhol died in 1987. But there is an incredible afterlife to his work. Of course death is a singular event, but the way Warhol talked about it and thinking about it makes death less punctual, more continuous with a kind of cultural haunting or appearance as a posthumous yet still somehow living “figment.” There is this beautiful contact sheet of skulls and skeletons, shot when Warhol visited an anatomy class, that speaks to this.

I was surprised, and not unhappily, to discover that there were eighteen sexually explicit sheets in the Stanford collection. They’re real sex acts between men, but they’re also staged for the camera. Some were taken at the home of Victor Hugo, a Venezuelan window dresser who was Halston’s boyfriend as well as something of a sexual magnet to many other gay men. All eighteen sheets feature Hugo having sex with different partners.  Most of the images were taken in Warhol’s studio and business office, or the Third Factory as it was called, on Lower Broadway. Based on these photo sessions, Warhol produced a series of silkscreen pictures called “Sex Parts,” in 1978, two of which are on display in our show.

By the late ’70s, a decade after Stonewall, a popular idea among gay men was that sexual liberation involved multiple partners and many different kinds of sex, including anonymous encounters, bathhouse hookups, leather, kink, and S/M. Urban gay men became quite public about their roles as both sexual agent and object, about desiring and being desired. The fact that Warhol made work that captured a sense of gay sexual confidence and liberation was surprising to me. People (including me, before this show) generally think of Warhol as asexual or reticent about the politics of sexual liberation, but that wasn’t the case.

In retrospect, the sexual confidence pervading these contact sheets became, at least for me, inextricable from thinking about AIDS. Hugo died as a result of AIDS, as did Halston, as did Jon Gould an executive at Paramount Studios who was Warhol’s last boyfriend, as did countless other men the artist photographed. There’s a moment in the Diaries where Warhol says that Gould has to go to a funeral for a male secretary who died of “gay cancer.” That phrase reminded of me of how early in the crisis this was, before we knew it was Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Warhol says he’s too afraid to go to the funeral because he might get AIDS from being there.

Since being HIV positive has become a treatable condition, we’ve lost the public memory of the intense fear and the backlash against gay men triggered by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. As a gay man who lived through that time, I really felt it come back strongly thirty years later when I looked at the “Sex Parts” contact sheets from the late 1970s and Warhol’s fearful diary entries about AIDS from the ’80s.

PHELAN  And these issues that Richard is addressing return us to the question of latency that showing the contact sheets raises. Gould, as curator Jessica Beck points out in the catalogue, was not out in his corporate job at Paramount. And his desire to remain closeted prompted him to ask Warhol not to mention him in interviews or use his name very much or at all in his Diaries. But the contact sheets, especially the ones taken in Montauk, show a very proud, absolutely buff and beautiful man. In some of them he flexes his muscles and even poses on a rock Adonis-like. So in thinking about these photographs in 2018, and publishing them, we are overriding Gould’s lived wish to be closeted. (The publication of Warhol’s Diaries in 1989 did the main work of outing Gould.) But we are also, I hope, restoring something of the dignity, the fun, and the passion that animated his life in a way that honors both Gould and Warhol.

Similarly, there is a history of sex and sexuality documented in the archive that is absolutely resonant with our own moment. Should sex acts, consensual or otherwise, “live” beyond those who made pictures of them? What obligations do we have to men who may have been engaged in gay sex acts in the 1970s but are no longer living as gay men? The archive teems with questions of this sort. And are “sex acts” the only thing worth puzzling over? Is cocaine use okay but anal sex acts verboten? And will these same judgments seem archaic thirty years on?

MEYER  When Warhol was in London he photographed a crossing sign that instructed pedestrians to “Look Right” but he cropped the image so that it just says look. This is the message of our show and book. Look more closely at the world around you. I find it very meaningful and weirdly a little bit moving, especially in our moment, when everything is so instantaneous, when we’re encouraged to glance at things rather than to really look at them.