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Warhol exhibit explores roles of gender and sexuality in his life and art

The Andy Warhol retrospective at London’s Tate Modern aims to unearth Warhol the person from the facade of Warhol the icon.
Four portraits from Andy Warhol's 1975 \"Ladies & Gentlemen\" series. More than 100 of the iconic artist's pieces are on display at London's Tate Modern.
Four portraits from Andy Warhol's 1975 "Ladies & Gentlemen" series. More than 100 of the iconic artist's pieces are on display at London's Tate Modern.Andy Warhol / Tate Modern

A large portrait currently on view at London’s Tate Modern is one of many in a new exhibition that is instantly recognizable as the work of Andy Warhol. Its composition is bold, and so is its content: The model was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman and trailblazing LGBTQ activist.

The 1975 portrait is one of over two dozen from Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” series featured at the museum’s newly reopened and extended Warhol retrospective, on view until Nov. 15. The series, which portrays Black and Latinx trans women and drag queens from New York, is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Andy Warhol's portrait of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, left, is now on view at London's Tate Modern.
Andy Warhol's portrait of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, left, is on view at London's Tate Modern.Andrew Dunkley / Tate Modern

The retrospective, which opened briefly in March before being closed in the coronavirus pandemic, features more than 100 pieces of the artist’s work and explores the influences of gender expression and sexuality in both his life and art. In doing so, the exhibit — which will travel to Cologne, Germany, and Toronto after its London run — aims to unearth Warhol, the person, from beneath the well-known facade of Warhol, the iconic American artist, according to assistant curator Fiontán Moran.

“Very often he’s associated nowadays with his carefree constructed persona or his association with celebrity or money or fame, and all of those things are parts of his career and his interests, but I think in the process sometimes the real human being who created art gets lost a little bit,” Moran said.

Warhol’s gender expression and sexuality were defining influences on his personal and professional lives, according to his most recent biographer, Blake Gopnik, whose nearly 1,000-page eponymous Warhol tome was published this year. In it, Gopnik — who was not involved in the curation of the Tate exhibit but spoke about Warhol at the museum this year — writes, “Warhol’s relationship to his own sexuality … became a driving force behind his entire conception of how to make art and live life.”

The artist’s gender nonconformity was clear from the days of his childhood in 1930s Pittsburgh, according to Gopnik.

“Instead of being out playing baseball with the boys, he was sitting on the front stoop drawing pictures of flowers and butterflies,” Gopnik said. “From very early on, he was being marked as not traditionally masculine.”

In 1949, after Warhol finished art school at the then-Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), he boarded an all-night Greyhound bus to New York — the city where he would become Warhol, the icon, and where he would more fully express his sexuality.

“In New York, he completely threw himself into this creative queer community,” Moran said.

But even in the New York gay and arts scenes, Warhol — who as a public figure was famously elusive about his biographical details and identity — was “almost but never quite out,” Gopnik writes in his Warhol biography.

“Anyone with half a brain realized that Warhol was gay, but he didn’t actually come out and say it really until the 1970s and ’80s, and even then it was only said in a somewhat joking way,” Gopnik said.

Warhol’s artistic immersion in gay culture in New York is on view in a selection of his early line drawings from the 1950s featured in the Tate exhibit. The drawings — likely based on people Warhol knew personally, most of whom are not explicitly identified — depict men with full lips and wavy hair. One reclines in a sweater, smelling a flower, while another stands in front of a vase of flowers, his long nose and lashes on display in his profile view. Other drawings are far more explicit. Together, they recall not only a “moment of gay life in New York,” as Gopnik notes, but also Warhol’s role as both a witness to and a participant in that culture.

But the drawings, like most of Warhol’s explicit works throughout the 1950s, were not well received by the U.S. art world: Critics considered him too "camp," according to Gopnik. Warhol would not achieve widespread acclaim until the 1960s, when he created works of pop art based on advertising imagery and consumer and celebrity culture — including Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe portraits, also on view in the Tate exhibit.

Marilyn Diptych 1962.
Marilyn Diptych 1962.Andy Warhol / Tate Modern

Early in his success, in 1963, Warhol made “Sleep,” his first serious art film that — at more than five hours long, projected in slow motion — consists of 22 closeups of his lover, the poet John Giorno, sleeping naked. Like the early line drawings, “Sleep” implicitly suggests Warhol’s dual roles both as an observer of gay life and a member of it. The film, also on view at the Tate exhibit, is not as much of an anomaly in Warhol’s oeuvre as it may seem upon first glance, according to Moran.

“Throughout his work — especially works that deal more explicitly with beautiful people or beautiful men — there is this great attention to the act of looking, and 'Sleep' is probably the best testament to that,” Moran said. “It isn’t a film of dramatic storytelling. It’s literally forcing you to gaze at this naked man as he sleeps.”

Giorno was not explicitly recognized in reviews as Warhol’s boyfriend, according to Gopnik— a fact that he attributes to the film’s experimental quality, which may have overshadowed what it depicted.

“By making it so formally avant-garde, he saved himself from having to worry about whether people would be up in arms about its gay content,” Gopnik said.

In contrast, the content of Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” series, in which Marsha P. Johnson was featured, did attract attention both because of who it highlighted and the relative absence of artistic depictions of transgender people — and particularly trans people of color — that it pointed to.

“It was rare for women who weren’t naked to be the subject of art; it was extremely rare for people of color to be the subject of art by and for the mainstream world; and my guess is it’s one of very few images of transgender people, and certainly the only significant representation of transgender people of color by a major white artist,” Gopnik said.

The Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned the series from Warhol after the artist brought him to the Gilded Grape, a bar in Midtown Manhattan that attracted gay and transgender people, along with drag queens. Warhol would go on to scout models for the series from the club. Anselmino paid Warhol almost a million dollars for just over 100 paintings; Warhol, instead, painted nearly 300. He employed his silk screen method to produce the works, by first photographing the models and then printing the images with ink onto canvases through a mesh silk screen.

Warhol saw the models he painted partly as manifestations of the ideal womanhood that he argued drag performers, by nature, strove to achieve.

“Drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women will actually want to be,” Warhol wrote in the book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” which came out in 1975, the same year he created his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series.

Warhol’s signature pop art style emerges in the series’ elegant and compelling portraits, many of which at the Tate are of lesser-known transgender women and drag queens about whom little is known. But the images are more subdued than Warhol’s well-known pop art works: The models’ smiles are sly, and their poses — a head resting on a chin, a dead-on glare — often pensive.

For Gopnik, the series represents Warhol’s commitment to foregrounding the intersections of race and gender, and to depicting the models as both people and performers — as both human beings and icons.

“Those people are individuated, they’re full of character and life, they’re painted with energy, there seems to be a real investment in those roles — both on the part of Andy Warhol, and in the parts of the sitters,” Gopnik said. “It’s exceptional on all sorts of levels.”

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