Inside the world of Andy Warhol at Bannister Gallery, Dec. 9 - Jan. 8

Andy Warhol (Photo: AP)
On a Wednesday afternoon in his Roberts Hall office, Bannister Gallery director James Montford is discussing contexts for the upcoming exhibition of Warhol photographs, on display from Dec. 9 to Jan. 8. He imagines Andy Warhol moving through the set of “Mad Men,” the Emmy Award–winning television series portraying the advertising world of the 60s.

“Is that too far fetched?” Montford said, questioning himself.

The “Mad” of the title refers to Madison Avenue, and if you visualize an Andy Warhol there with his familiar teased out Beatles-style wig, then the image certainly would seem anomalous.

John Travolta photo by Andy Warhol.
But if you check out the black-and-white inset photo on the cover of Victor Bockris’ biography of Warhol, things come into focus. That version of the most famous of Pop artists shows an individual with a standard early sixties haircut and the business-uniform suit and tie.

In fact, Warhol did fit into the New York advertising world and prospered. As one measure of success, the art critic Calvin Tomkins cited that Warhol became “the most sought-after illustrator of women’s accessories in New York.”

Many of the works that put Warhol on the map of the fine art world were rooted in advertising: paintings of Campbell soup cans, plywood sculptures of Brillo boxes and silkscreen portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe.

This indicates another point about the tremendous influence Warhol had on contemporary art. He helped blur the boundaries between fine art and popular culture, and when considered against the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the 50s and 60s, he also helped restore the figurative element to painting with such familiar images recontextualized from the real to the aesthetic.

In addition, one should not forget his extensive and pioneering work in experimental film.

Andy Warhol’s Polaroid photos

By Mary Ball Howkins
RIC Professor of Art

Andy Warhol’s artistic methods made photography central to his process. Polaroid photos were a natural extension of that process, contesting the boundaries between high and low art, between traditional aesthetic strategy in picture making and mechanical “artless” image production.

The Polaroids in the Bannister Gallery exhibition were made as studies, or photographic “sketches,” for subsequent silkscreens, yet can be assessed as works in their own right illuminating Warhol’s artistic choices.

One of a few consistent portraitists in the 20th century, Warhol used the instant camera in his studio for silkscreen preparation and as a people-distancing and marketing device (to gain clients for the sale of silkscreened portraits) at elite social gatherings where he was curiously inarticulate and fundamentally voyeuristic.

That celebrity voyeurism was in tune with our own as a culture. Warhol gauged his celebrity fascination with ours, in the faces of John Travolta, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. He aligned his own commercial success as a leading artist in New York with the public hunger for celebrity icons. Celebrity consumers all, Warhol and the public, he focused closely on the faces that could give instant recognition and gratification in an increasingly consumer-oriented economy.
For Montford context is important in framing the show of Warhol photographs he is curating, with a Dec. 9 opening from 5-8 p.m., during which Montford will give the gallery talk. He plans to have Bannister reflect the ambience of the 60s, the world in which Warhol first achieved recognition. Too often he finds such shows presented as if they were solely part of the present, thereby lacking an important dimension.

The color of the walls, the matting of the work, the frames – using chrome frames as opposed to the wood or typical black frames of today – and historical documentation, all figure into Montford’s intention, which he says is “to create vignettes of experience as you go through the exhibit.”

The photographs are a bequest from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the collection bequeathed to the Rhode Island College consists of 108 Polaroid photographs and 51 black-and-white gelatin silver prints. From this array Montford hopes to display around 40 works.

The collection covers a wide range, documenting, in Montford’s words, “celebrities and plainfolk” – and more.

Some of the more famous subjects include Bianca Jagger, Pia Zadora, Liza Minnelli, Martin Scorsese, John Travolta, and fashion designer Giorgio Armani, along with several pointed and revealing images of the painter James Wyeth. There are no posed shots but rather a moment in repose or a chat with an unidentified person.

A number of other photographs, however, have modest titles, such as “Unidentified Man,” “People on the Street,” “Skyline,” “Union Square, ” “Japanese Toy” and “Bowl of Fruit,” suggesting a more subdued, humanistic side of Warhol.

The photographs given away by the Warhol Foundation totaled more than 28,500, still a fraction of the some 60,000 Warhol took.

“He had a camera with him 24/7,” Montford noted.

Warhol’s penchant for the camera had early roots, too.

“There is a section of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh,” the gallery director said, “that shows family movies and photos, some of which Warhol himself took. His documentary impulse was an outgrowth of his childhood.”

Photography underlies a large part of Warhol’s work. In addition to the kinds of photographs in the Bannister collection, Warhol resorted to photo-booth portraits, newspapers and pictorial archives as sources, and could be quite fanatical about them.

When working on his “Electric Chair” from his Death in America series, which showed his lesser-known darker side in capturing crimes, accidents and suicides, Warhol searched through the archives of the New York Public Library to find an image of the chair used to execute alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Ethel Scull, wife of art collector Robert Scull, agreed to have Warhol do a portrait of her and expected to be taken to Richard Avedon’s Studio for her preliminary photo. Instead, Warhol took her to a Photo-Matic machine on 42nd Street and produced $100 worth of coins.

Bannister Gallery director James Montford and RIC President
Nancy Carriuolo examine a collection of Andy Warhol's
photographs that was donated to the college.
In large part Warhol’s work was not the result of individualized labor. He made extensive use of assistants in his studio, known as The Factory, a practice representing a continuity with his roots in the world of advertising and mass media.

Montford summed up Warhol’s method in this way: “He worked like a Renaissance figure, but the feeling was mass produced.”

Still a Warhol work is unmistakable, as the gallery director noted, “When you look at a Warhol, you know it’s a Warhol no matter what the scale.”

Warhol’s milieu reflected a time when advertising became an important element of culture, mass media gained tremendous influence, and the pace of life accelerated.

And those elements have remained interwoven into our culture today, as has Warhol’s influence.

Montford pointed out that the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh currently is showing work by Shepard Fairey, the Los Angeles–based street artist who recently gained notoriety for his Barack Obama poster and who is also known for his Andre the Giant sticker, the latter of which was created in Providence. Both works, with their print-like appearance, can trace their lineage back to Warhol silkscreens.

“Warhol was always trying to remake himself,” Montford noted.

That is an aspect that the gallery director would like to bring to the exhibit as well. For instance, he is considering showing “Basquiat,” the Julian Schnabel film on Warhol protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat. Warhol’s collaboration with the younger artist in the 80s caused him to return to painting by hand for the first time since the early 60s.

It is Warhol’s near unprecedented success that allowed him to shift his focus.

“Success gave him carte blanche.” Montford emphasized. “He always had a free hand and made a conscious decision to make art his own way.”

While Warhol’s legacy may still be hard to pin down, it is undoubtedly enriched by its considerable diversity, part of which is embodied in the studies and preoccupations of the Bannister Gallery exhibition. It is a rare opportunity to experience the hidden dimensions of restless mind and influential artist.

Gallery hours during exhibits are Tuesday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Exhibits and events are free and open to the public. Accessible to persons with disabilities. For information on event dates and exhibit opening receptions, check the website at or call (401) 456-9765.