Portraits of the Artists

Five pop masters pop up again in photographs at the Boca Museum

Visiting "I Shot Warhol Wesselmann Lichtenstein Rosenquist and Indiana" is sort of like flipping through a friend's personal photo albums — if your friend has also been friends with some of the top names in pop art. The exhibition, now winding down at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, includes 70 or so images, about half in black and white and half in color. Some, most notably those of Warhol, date from the mid-1960s, with the remainder from the '80s and a few from the '90s.

The photographs are the work of Bob Adelman and William John Kennedy, both of whom were born in New York in 1930 and now live in Miami Beach. Adelman, who originally studied law (but, fortunately for photography, abandoned it), has had what might be characterized as a schizophrenic career, simultaneously chronicling the visual arts and such social and political issues as the civil rights movement. Kennedy, meanwhile, rose to the top in commercial and fashion photography.

Warhol by Kennedy: The artist, shot through his own silkscreen
Warhol by Kennedy: The artist, shot through his own silkscreen

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"I Shot Warhol Wesselmann Lichtenstein Rosenquist and Indiana," on display through September 7 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton; 561-392-2500.

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Both men had the good fortune to cross paths with the handful of artists whose names are mentioned in the show's title: Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana. Adelman photographed Warhol for Esquire and Lichtenstein for Life. He also shot the latter artist for three books. Kennedy met Warhol through Indiana, although his shots of both artists, according to his catalog bio, "lay forgotten in storage at his New York City studio for four decades while Kennedy enjoyed success as a freelance commercial photographer for New York City advertising agencies."

The show, then, is an archivist's dream, assembled with customary care by the Boca Museum's reliable senior curator, Wendy M. Blazier. The Warhol section, in particular, is like a trip back in time to the heady days when pop art offered up reinvigorated ways of seeing. Whether alone or in the company of such Factory denizens as supermodel Edie Sedgwick, poet Gerard Malanga, and fellow multimedia practitioner Taylor Mead, Warhol, by his mere presence, summons up an entire era and its aesthetic possibilities.

Warhol is by default the "star" of the show, since he is the only artist who was photographed by both Adelman and Kennedy. Adelman's shots include some classics: Warhol posing deadpan in the aluminum foil-lined bathroom of his Factory (was there ever a more aptly named studio?); Warhol shopping for boxes of Brillo pads and cans of Campbell's soup in a market around the corner from the Factory; Warhol sprawled languorously on the sofa used in his 1964 film Couch. There's an especially telling shot of him at a Factory party with actor Kevin McCarthy and the artist Marisol, with Warhol's gestures — consciously or not, who's to say? — uncannily mirroring Marisol's. It's Warhol as chameleon, allowing us to project whatever we want onto him, which was after all a significant part of his genius.

Kennedy captured Warhol in and around the Factory as well: using the pay phone that was the only telephone in the place, on the fire escape with reproductions of his Self-Portrait, peering through an acetate proof of his famous Marilyn silkscreen. Kennedy also lured the artist outdoors into a field of black-eyed Susans for a pair of unexpectedly poignant portraits — one with Taylor Mead, with Warhol coyly deflecting the camera's gaze, the other a solo, with the sweater-clad Warhol (the sweater was Kennedy's) holding a bouquet of flowers in front of his own Flowers.

There's a casualness about the Warhol images that masks their surprising power. One of Warhol's great legacies was the multiplication of the photographic image — think of his silkscreen multiples, or of the way he sometimes seemed to be never without a Polaroid camera for capturing whatever (and whomever) came his way. These portraits go behind the camera to give us privileged glimpses of the man known, in one of his many guises, for photographing others.

Adelman's Wesselmann series includes eight black-and-white shots from circa 1966-67 and three color shots from the '80s, all juxtaposing the artist with his iconographic imagery of the female form. Whether he's standing in front of his work at his first solo show or working from a live model, Wesselmann becomes inextricably linked to the body parts that made him famous. Fittingly, breasts feature in a pair of portraits of the artist, with him peering intently at his subject matter as he sketches in his studio.

Among the cleverest shots in the show are Adelman's portraits of Lichtenstein from the 1980s and '90s. There's a 1983 image of the artist's Sleeping Muse, an oversized head that seems to rest, both literally and figuratively, atop Lichtenstein's own head. In another portrait, Lichtenstein pulls open an outer shirt, Superman-style, to reveal a T-shirt beneath, printed with the slogan ART IS A DIRTY JOB BUT SOMEBODY'S GOT TO DO IT.

Better still are a couple of 1989 color photos that dazzle by virtue of scale. In one, Lichtenstein is at the top of a tall ladder, in front of and dwarfed by his massive mural Bauhaus Stairway; Large Version, which he painted for the I.M. Pei-designed headquarters of the Creative Artists Agency in L.A. In the other, the artist sits on a smaller ladder poised between two panels of a 23-by-54-foot mural created for the entry of Israel's Tel Aviv Museum. And for one shot, Lichtenstein is reduced to a tiny hand with a paintbrush filling in one of the red dots in a sea of the Benday dots he made famous.

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