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Hamptons Life

May 17, 2011 6:54 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Warhol: The Super Artist In The Supermarket

May 17, 2011 11:53 AM

In an exhibition of photographs at The Maidstone hotel in East Hampton, viewers can gain remarkable insights into the private life of Andy Warhol, an artist/celebrity who was, regardless of one’s opinion of his work, an enigmatic cipher and one of the giant figures in the history of art in the latter part of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, in the years since his death on February 22, 1987, the art world still cannot decide whether Warhol was, as one critic claimed, “the most brilliant mirror of our times,” or rather little more than a purveyor of pop culture mediocrity who the writer Robert Hughes described as “one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Regardless of the decision that is eventually determined by the galleries, the auction houses and the ivory towers of academia, the most elemental truth is that even by the time of his premature demise, Warhol had already become one of the most famous corporate logos in the world. He had become the super artist in the supermarket, as much of a brand name as Coke or Pepsi and as much of a star as the icons of Hollywood he idolized and lionized.

Perhaps nothing symbolized this fame outside the confines of the art world intelligentsia—not even the recent stratospheric prices his works now demand and which are greeted with cries of amazement and outrage—than the anticipation in 1988 of the auction of the contents of his home and personal collection at Sotheby’s in April of that year. Before the townhouse was to be dismantled and its contents shipped across town to auction, however, the Observer Magazine in London was able to gain exclusive access to photograph the interior, sending photographer David Gamble to get a glimpse into the very private sanctuary of an artist who had lived a very public life.

Previously the winner of the Grand Prix European Award, Best Photographer in Europe in 1987 (and later awarded the World Press Award in 1989), prior to this assignment Mr. Gamble had been known as one of the most prominent portrait photographers in the world. His subjects had included Eric Clapton, Stephen Hawking and Margaret Thatcher, among many others.

While some would point out that photographing interiors is far removed from portrait photography, in point of fact, what was needed for the Warhol assignment was just what Mr. Gamble was able to achieve. He was able to conjure a portrait of the man through his surroundings and objects, rather than simply through a formal sitting in a chair before a backdrop.

Further, as it turned out, given the task at hand, the need for artificial scenery to conjure Warhol at home proved to be a rather easy thing to accomplish. An inveterate collector of fine art, furniture, jewelry, decorative arts and just plain junk masquerading as kitsch, Warhol’s 27-room townhouse was overflowing with what can only be called “stuff.”

Constantly scouring antiques stores and flea markets, Warhol was, in his own words “always looking for that $5 object that’s really worth millions.” And now, after his death, people were looking to buy those same mundane articles, believing that they would be transformed from garbage to gold simply because of who had owned them.

Basically, through his photographs, Mr. Gamble was able to offer a memorable reflection of the Warhol the public rarely saw, whether it’s in the series featuring Andy’s wigs (colorized to emulate his trademark repetitive printing techniques), the townhouse’s pretentiously gaudy entrance hall, or the medicine cabinet filled to the brim with drugs, medications, skin creams, and balms, all testifying to Warhol’s reputation as a world-class hypochondriac.

And then there’s the photograph of the decidedly dreary kitchen reflecting the perpetual presence and influence of his departed mother, Julia, who had lived with him until her death in 1972 (Warhol, as late as 1976, would report that his mother was “Great. But she doesn’t get out of bed much” when friends asked of her). Looking at the atmosphere in the kitchen as captured by Mr. Gamble, part hearth and home and part Norman Bates, it’s easy to see how Warhol’s denial of his mother’s demise could be perpetuated by a space that is redolent of old lady, even though she may have been long departed from this world.

As a result, whether one acknowledges Warhol as a transcendent cultural icon or as a consummate con man, in these works, Mr. Gamble offers a glimpse into the private life of an individual whose impact on art and society is undeniable and incalculable, even as we debate his ultimate value as an artist. An artist pictured here sans artifice, absent the mask, and certainly without the wig.

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