In 2008, the Flaten Art Museum here at St. Olaf was one of 80 art institutions to be awarded a number of Polaroid pictures taken by Andy Warhol in the 1970s and 80s. These photographs are now on display, along with photographs by others who were part of Warhol’s scene and one current photographer based in New York City. The exhibit is called Andy Warhol and his Contemporaries: An urban milieu – New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and today. It will be on display until Dec. 9.
The pictures are raw and vulnerable. The photos are all thematically and emotionally colorful though some appear in black and white. The viewer can sense the vibrant, electric atmosphere of the city and the times. The pictures range from tranquil morning-after snapshots to raucous, rosy-cheeked party shots to homoerotic bed scenes. Essential to the pictures is the persona of Warhol and the scene that swirled around him, attracting celebrities, artists and fringe characters of every sort. I found myself imagining the situation that spawned each picture, and could easily picture the inspired Warhol, demanding his subjects to stop what they’re doing so Warhol could capture the aura of a moment.
There is a Polaroid “Big Shot” camera on display in the exhibit, Warhol’s favorite camera and the one used for most of the exhibit’s pictures. The unique nature of the camera, made exclusively for portraits, is central to the aesthetic of the exhibit. The camera has interesting limitations that must have appealed to Warhol: a fixed focus frame that allowed a maximum of two closely entwined people in each shot, flash lighting that consistently overexposes his subjects and a clunky physical appearance. It produced instant snapshots that took about a minute to print. The eccentric mechanics of the camera mirror the wild, short-lived atmosphere of the times and the pictures produced are evidence of that.
The euphoria and unregulated nature of a New York City that no longer exists flashes across these images. Some highlights include a bearded Sylvester Stallone staring despondently out at the viewer; a blurry black-and-white of Madonna and Tom Waits, sharing a joint animatedly a Muxter shot rather than Warhol and two hugging men posing in a tender moment. As an exercise in time-travel, the exhibition does a fantastic job of bringing the viewer into Warhol’s New York City.
The exhibit also features a few portraits by the current New York photographer Amy Elkins. The photos are of shirtless young men placed in front of floral wallpaper, creating a striking juxtaposition. The pictures draw you in and fit well with many of the themes from the older photographs. They are at once vulnerable and defensive, self-assured and insecure. For all of their merits, they have none of the libertine feel of Warhol’s shots and feel much more affected and artificial.
Perhaps the differences between the contemporary photos and those from the 70s and 80s is telling. No matter how hard today’s hipsterized Brooklyn tries, the wild magic of New York City’s past cannot be reproduced. The unregulated, underground New York of a bygone time is no more, but to get a glimpse of what it looked like through the lens of one of its great icons, visit Andy Warhol and His Contemporaries.