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At the Weatherspoon, Warhol packs a house

by Brian Clarey

(from left) Truman Capote, after August 1977.

Ryan O’Neal, December 1971.

Polacolor Type 108 photographs 4 1/4" x 3 6/16". Collection of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 2008 ‘ The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts .

 

More than 20 years after his death, the man who made tomato soup cool still packs ’em in.

 

They came as disco divas, East Village hipsters and in compemporary guise to honor Andy Warhol, one of the art world’s most famous — an polariziong — figures. A couple of them even came dressed as the man himself Friday night at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, where Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids made its Greensboro debut amid live music, candy bananas and barbecue sliders in the sculpture garden.

Pretty much everybody, even my 7-year-old son, has at least a passing familiarity with Warhol, his story and his work. Everybody knows about the soup cans, the celebrity silk-screens, the 15 minutes of fame quote, the Velvet Underground, the bananas. Most people know about the Factory, Warhol’s tin-foil-covered salon in Midtown Manhattan where artistic magic happened amid A-list parties that included boldfaced names like Mick Jagger, Baby Jane Holzer, William Burroughs and Carly Simon.

And anyone who’s undertaken even the most rudimentary study of modern art realizes how Warhol’s work was at once a commentary on and a reflection of contemporary American culture: His work carried across silk-screens, T-shirts, posters, album covers, movies, commercials, magazines and photography, but the exhibition at the Weatherspoon focuses on his collection of snapshots —taken at the factory of visitors and friends with a Polaroid Big Shot, an instant camera as big as an arm with a fixed focal distance of just a few feet.

The shots are lined up in groups on the walls of the big gallery upstairs, interspersed with a few black-and-white photos of New York City during the Warhol era. Taken singularly, the Warhol Polaroids are noteworthy because of the famous faces captured in this generic light: Capote, Basquiat, Diane Lane, Studio 54’s Steve Rubell, Grace Jones,

Willie Shoemaker, Edie Sedgewick, 1970s tennis star Vidus Gerulaitis, Cars lead singer Ric Ocasek, Howdy Doody, Ryan O’Neal… it’s one huge name-dropping extravaganza.

But taken as a piece, there’s something very… Warhol about it. The design of the Big Shot camera is such that every photo has the same dimensions and lighting — you focus it by moving your feet towards or away from your subject — resulting in a boilerplate feel with just a hint of 1970s cheese, like bad yearbook pictures or forgotten family photos buried in boxes in the attic. Warhol took the snapshot and made it into a medium for fine art.

It’s the juxtaposition of famous people in mundane poses that makes these snapshots good: Carly Simon smoldering bare-shouldered at the camera, Dorothy Hamill framed by her famous bowl haircut, Howdy Doody giving a wooden salute. And then there are the unidentified models, some of whom wandered into the Factory off the street, others invited there for late-night (or early-morning) debauchery. There are androgynous beauties, anonymous nudes, friendly strangers, street people and a few barely recognizable celebs whose fame lasted a bit longer than Warhol’s proscribed 15 minutes among the cultural elite on the walls of the Weatherspoon, and it’s worth carrying the reference pages or using the ’Spoon’s cell-phone tour when perusing the images just to know who’s who.

Odd, to see a gallery full of patrons listening to descriptions of the art on their personal pocket communication devices. I think Warhol would have loved it.

wanna go?

Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids Weatherspoon Art Museum Spring Garden and Tate streets

Greensboro, 336.334.5770 weatherspoon.uncg.edu, runs through Sept. 19

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