Portraits of the Artists
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.
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.
Scale is also inevitably part of the portion of the exhibition that deals with Rosenquist, whose work is typically described as monumental. Like Lichtenstein on the ladder, there's a 1980 image of Rosenquist almost comically overshadowed by his well-known Star Thief painting, which he stands in front of with a broom. Another striking shot alludes to matters of scale by posing the artist with a magnifying glass in front of his face, and there's an amusing shot of the shirtless Rosenquist, paintbrushes in hand, storming the camera like a madman.
Probably because it includes only five photos, the Indiana segment of the show feels almost like a footnote, included only because it establishes the link between Kennedy and Warhol. And while Indiana is hardly a nobody in the scheme of contemporary American art — his famous painting of the word LOVE is supposedly the most reproduced image in pop art — it could also be argued that he ranks a tier below the other artists shown here.
But on the strength of its Warhol section alone, which transports us back to a pivotal moment in American pop art, "I Shot Warhol Wesselmann Lichtenstein Rosenquist and Indiana" transcends any minor quibbles one might have with it. It's one of the most solid small shows so far this year.
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