CLEMSON – Today’s Instagram models and celebrity Tweeters can shift public discourse, paradigms, and even the destiny of Fortune 500 companies with a single post on social media. Those that accrue that power have been titled “influencers,” but the man who ignited the pop culture machine died decades before Instagram, Twitter, or the internet as we know it existed. Andy Warhol is the grandfather of it all.
A selection of Warhol’s groundbreaking work is on display at Clemson University until March 6 in the exhibition “Andy Warhol: Portraits and the Everyday” at the Lee Gallery.
Free to the public, the exhibition features 98 pieces of Warhol’s work. The selection of images can thrill one viewer while challenging another’s perception of what “art” is.
The show includes several of Warhol’s iconic screen-printed portraits alongside black-and-white photo prints and Polaroids with subject matter ranging from headshots of some world-famous celebrities to head-scratchingly banal snapshots from his day-to-day life. Glamorous photographs of Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Chris Evert, and Lauren Hutton hang next to unstaged pictures of Warhol’s desktop lamp, an out-of-focus group of seven eggs, and – in what might be considered a precursor to Instagram – a plate of pasta.
Denise Woodward-Detrich, who has been the director of the Lee Gallery for 22 years, explained that many of the photographs in the show were not taken to be displayed as “art,” but rather were part of Warhol’s process as he gathered information and inspiration. In that way, they offer a look into the mind of someone the majority of art historians consider one of the most important artists of the 20th century.
These Polaroids are particularly interesting. Warhol was enamored with inexpensive and easy-to-use photographic technologies and carried a Polaroid “Big Shot” camera or a small 35mm point-and-shoot with him at all times. In the last decade of his life, he went through a roll of film every single day.
“In my opinion the Polaroids are like looking through an artist’s sketchbook,” Detrich said. “He used multiple Polaroids, for instance, to identify multiple angles of one individual. It’s like looking through someone’s private collection of ideas. He was a voracious collector of things – and this was one way he collected information about his subjects so that he could eventually make screen prints of them.”
Warhol’s work was always controversial, especially in the last two decades of his life when he shifted to a more entrepreneurial approach that some considered “selling out.” He unabashedly used his celebrity to draw people to his work and he was never ashamed to make money, saying famously in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” In that regard, too, he paved the way for the social media superstars of today.
“Andy Warhol’s art speaks to some really difficult things – identity, homosexuality, acceptance… but he wanted to be liked. Who doesn’t feel the need to be liked?” Detrich said. “It’s not just entertainment – it’s core heart stuff.”
Photographs in the exhibition are on loan from the University of South Carolina-Upstate and East Tennessee State University. Both universities were granted original Warhol photographs for viewing and study as part of the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program, organized by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The Legacy Program distributed Warhol’s photographic works to colleges and universities across the country to provide greater access to these relatively unknown bodies of work.
Detrich was thrilled when all the pieces fell into place to bring the exhibit to Clemson, but she was most excited for her students.
“It’s a teaching gallery, so I didn’t do this all by myself. I had my seniors help unpack the work and install it and I worked with one of our Graduate students Amanda Musick to select the work for the exhibit. Can you imagine as an undergraduate student being responsible for putting an Andy Warhol on the wall or being a graduate student and having a curated exhibit on your resume? These are important opportunities the gallery provides our students both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”
Meredith Mims McTigue, the marketing and public relations director for Clemson’s Center for Visual Art, credited Detrich with bringing such a world-class exhibit to campus, where students will benefit from it the most.
“What Denise has done is such a gift for the university,” McTigue said. “Having Andy Warhol in the Lee Gallery puts Clemson on the cultural map – and that’s kind of an understatement. His international body of work is important to the world, and that brings people into the gallery which is great – but she’s here day in and day out putting up exhibitions all over campus of other names not as big as Warhol that have extraordinary work – including our students.”
Detrich pointed out how much thought she and her students put into hanging each piece of art in the show. A large print of Beethoven, for example, hangs next to a wall of Polaroids, all taken of the same businessman whose dark, arching eyebrows are similar to the musician’s.
One of Warhol’s trademarks was repetition, which is showcased perfectly in the exhibit. Stand in a certain spot, and you can see two different prints of Queen Beatrix. In another spot, you can see two prints of Sitting Bull, and see how Warhol manipulated colors and lines and how those differences change the feel of each piece.
That repetition is in the Polariods, too – even the ones that show the mundane. Thinking about it for a moment, one might come to see that if a careless snapshot of a pasta dinner can be framed and hung in a gallery, maybe every moment is that precious. Maybe every second of life is worth cherishing like a work of art.