Andy Warhol Andycam

Warhol's polaroid universe foreshadowed the Internet
Twenty-three years after artist Andy Warhol’s death there’s increasing lack of critical consensus over his defining works if recent sentiment is any indicator. In The Last Decade, Joseph Ketner maintains Warhol’s late work - piss paintings and self-portraits - is his crowning achievement. David Dalton and Tony Scherman think the opposite in Andy Warhol: His Controversial Life, Art and Colourful Times – that Warhol never surpassed his early forays into Pop Art with Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes, satiric symbols that sent up the elitism of high art. The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl reviewing Andy Warhol: The Last Decade at the Brooklyn Museum wrote that the late work - Shadows, the Camouflage pictures and his collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat - could “stand up to the strongest art made by anyone else, anywhere, at the time. See it. Admit it.” In fact, whichever way you splice critical opinion, the industry of Warhol’s artwork is as vibrant and relevant as ever.
“All my images are the same, but different at the same time”

Phaidon’s Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné series is the definitive record of the artist’s paintings, sculptures and drawings, covering 15,000 works between 1948 and 1987. The newly released third volume (1970-74) features the famous Mao paintings, the Man Ray series and commissioned portraits of friends and celebrities. Neither erumpent early Pop nor promotional late piss paint, this period is often considered weaker as much of the artist’s work was financially rather than aesthetically driven. Warhol charged his clients US$25,000 per portrait by this time.

The period has one major flash of inspiration though; the purchase of a Polaroid camera, the Big Shot. “Mr Land [Edwin] invented this great camera called a Polaroid,” Warhol writes in his notebook. “And it just takes the face of the person. There is something about the camera that makes the person look just right. They usually come out great. I take at least 200 pictures and then I choose.”

Repetition or mass reproduction of consumer objects was already a prevalent theme in Warhol’s work, but Polaroid opened up new possibilities for duplication and the art of photography. Warhol understood notions of instant gratification and its implications for global culture faster than any other artist. He helped elevate photo-imagery, always regarded as art’s poor relation to higher aesthetic and commercial status and his Polaroid universe was a precursor to the digital age and the Internet. 
Andy Warhol
Once discovered, Warhol was never without his beloved Polaroid. Designer Diane von Furstenberg once told this writer that he’d follow her into the toilet with it. “I can’t imagine what he might have done with the Internet if he’d been around to use it,” she said. “He was already like AndyCam 40 years ago.” For Warhol, the Polaroid was more than just a weapon of professional attack; it was also his defence. It meant he didn’t have to deal directly with the people he photographed. (Warhol nearly died when he was shot three times by feminist Valerie Solanas in 1968. He survived but never made a full recovery).

Warhol would routinely shoot multiple frames of a celebrity subject, apply layers of pigment and release a handful as limited-edition serigraphed [silk screen] prints. By so doing, he altered perceptions about the nature of art. In duplicating a portrait with numerous colour variations, the concept of an ‘original’ was deferred. Indeed, there was no original, just an infinite number of variations. That subverted art’s economic hierarchy by questioning the monetary value of any one image over another. As such, Warhol’s Polaroid was an incessant pressing of the ‘refresh button’ which he used to deny the definitive truth of images and reassert the world’s ever-changing state. His work expresses the art of impermanence. “All my images are the same, but very different at the same time, “ he said. “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”

Warhol wasn’t the first artist to express such sentiment. Norwegian symbolist Edvard Munch (whom Warhol acknowledges as an influence) repeated colour variations in his expressionist paintings and prints and advocated repetition. “We see with different eyes at different times. We see things one way in the morning and another in the evening, and the way we view things also depends on the mood we are in.” Munch created five versions of his finest work The Scream in various media. “That is why one subject can be seen in so many ways and that is what makes art so interesting,” he said.

Not all of this volume is so interesting. Warhol said ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ and much work smacks of necessity. But Polaroid’s driving force broadened his already growing production line of iconography. Using constellations of cinematic stars and celebs as content for camera and canvas, he foreshadowed the dynamics of collecting, retail and celebrification. His work is window shopping that gets better with each and every repeat viewing. - Georgina Scott
Warhol's hands holding SX-70 Polaroid Land Camera, January 1973. Polaroid. 
©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.