25 September 2014

The Pop artist was a star and paparazzo rolled into one. His ambivalent fascination with celebrities and flashing cameras runs through his entire oeuvre.

By Marie Beckmann

One's gaze moves up the more than four-meter-high canvas and gets caught by a total of twenty-five gaudily colored magazine covers--the simple yet pertinent headlines read "Dianas Traumhochzeit" (Diana's Dream Wedding) "Der Papst in Polen" (The Pope in Poland), or "Zu Gast bei Fürstin Gracia" (A Visit with Princess Grace). With "Magazine and History (0290)" from 1983, Andy Warhol created a montage out of covers of the German illustrated magazine "BUNTE." The enormous acrylic and silkscreen print not only testifies to Warhol's interest in press photography, paparazzi aesthetics, and the development of the mass media but also harbors a peculiar anecdote. In the early seventies, the Pop artist met the editor-in-chief of "BUNTE" at the time, Hubert Burda. Warhol, who in 1969 himself founded "Interview," a magazine for fashion, lifestyle, and gossip, gave Burda the idea of turning "BUNTE" into a German version of "People Magazine." To this day, "BUNTE" still bears the tagline "Leidenschaft für Menschen" (A Passion for People) and promises stories about the British aristocracy, German B-celebrities, and American Hollywood stars. Hubert Burda bought "Magazine and History (0290)."

This demonstrates an ambivalent fascination with celebrities as well as with the combination of commerce, art, and the production of images by the mass media, which influenced Warhol’s oeuvre beginning in the sixties. For Andy Warhol let himself be inspired by press photography in his early silkscreen prints, and he imitates photographs of everyday sporting events, current events, or advertisement images. He even appropriates entire newspaper pages, such as in “Daily News” (1962), one of the main works in his “Headlines” series. These works focus on searching for North America’s cultural profile, iconizing everyday things, as well as on critically examining the mass media and their effect-seeking headlines.

A collector of people on film

In the eighties, Warhol pursued the appropriation and adaptation of press headlines in collaboration with Keith Haring. “Untitled (New York Post Front Page—Madonna)“ features the front page of the “New York Post.” Besides the name of the newspaper, a picture of Madonna with an escort (the man with the sunglasses might be Sean Penn, her husband at the time), and the worlds “blast” and “stay cool,” everything is painted over in typical Haring fashion with accentuating lines and dancing manikins. Recoding par excellence.

"The most exciting work I've seen lately, are these paparazzi photos from the forties of movie stars. . . . They look so beautiful . . . like the greatest pictures in the world." The spontaneous and imitate quality of the pictures, the mysterious presence of the stars--the aesthetics of paparazzi photographs was entirely to Warhol's liking. His longstanding assistant Gerard Malanga described him as a "people collector"--a collector of people on film, silkscreen prints, and photo paper. In an interview he was once asked to name the person in today's world he found the most interesting. His answer: "I just like everyone."

Warhol literally shot back

Thus it is hardly surprising that in 1976 Warhol bought a pocketsize Minox camera that he carried with him from then on for the purpose of capturing his surroundings on film. He published the black-and-white photograph he took three years later in a volume with the clever title "Andy Warhol's Exposures"--clever because it makes reference to the images in photographic terms as well as in their disclosing quality. Warhol describes the photographs as "clear, showing a public figure engaged in private acts." The pictures therefore do not focus on a sophisticated composition, such as his previous silkscreen portraits of stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy. Rather, they highlight the moment, the person in action, the spontaneous act of photography--aesthetics that come about by way of chance and can rarely be controlled.

From hunter and gatherer to the hunted: the photograph "Paparazzi" from 1986 testifies to Warhol's own celebrity and star status. Over the years, Warhol, who died in 1987, increasingly withdrew from the underground and became a sought-after artist. This reversal becomes palpable in "Paparazzi": the viewer encounters paparazzi at eye level who remain anonymous behind the cameras that hide their faces. Warhol literally shot back, capturing in his picture precisely those characteristics that are characteristic of paparazzi photography itself: the slight overexposure due to the flash, the fleeting moment, a public place, the chance composition.

A confession of his own curiosity

Andy Warhol's examination of (mass) media, their impact on the reception of occurrences, as well as their formal aesthetics run through his oeuvre like a golden thread. The stance he adopted in the process is difficult to grasp. Warhol constantly oscillated between affirmation and deconstruction, and he time and again ironized and commented tongue-in-cheek on own affinity for celebrities and flashing cameras. However, it is this ambivalence that makes works such as "Magazine and History (0290)" interesting in the first place. Because they are a confession of his own curiosity and his passion for "collecting people."