Was such Andy Warhol The first influencer in the modern world? The artist may have died two decades ago before social media turned the word into a job title, but Warhol’s prolific use of photography to capture carefully curated lives would have earned the artist millions of followers today.
The artist as an influencer is one of the themes that the Art Gallery of South Australia will explore during 2023 Adelaide Festival In March, in Andy Warhol & Photography: A Social Media. It will be the first exhibition in Australia to focus on the artist’s lifelong obsession with photography, sourced from and from over 30 public and private collections from around the world.
More than 250 works, including experimental films, silk screens and paintings, will join AGSA’s extensive collection of 45 Warhol’s pieces, with a central photographic element promising a candid look at the famous New York pop artist’s lifestyle.
AGSA curator Julie Robinson told The Guardian Australia the exhibition would go a long way to explaining why the artist, nearly 35 years after his death, remains as important and collectible as ever. Earlier this year, Shot Sage became his Blue Marilyn The most expensive piece of 20th century art ever sold at auctionwith a price tag of US$195 million surpassing the previous record set by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version 0), which sold for US$179.4 million in 2015.
Robinson says of Warhol, who famously described himself as a “very superficial” human being.
“So by looking at these photos, you can learn more about Andy Warhol as a person. He was an extraordinary person, but he could also be an extraordinary ordinary person as well.”
Like many of his famous silkscreens, Warhol’s portrayal is imbued with celebrity presence. But it’s surprisingly lacking in charm in many of the photos.
Warhol once said that a good picture is of a famous person doing something that is not famous. So think of Bianca Jagger shaving her armpits, or the dark-eyed Mick Jagger at the table with Warhol and William Burroughs, in relation to the food offered to them with grim indifference.
Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Debbie Harry, John Lennon, Lisa Minnelli, Lou Reed, Elizabeth Taylor – the stars of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were drawn to the infamous Warhol Factory in midtown Manhattan, and the camera was always ready.
And over the last decade of the artist’s life, the Australian was at the center of it all. In the mid-to-late ’80s, Henry Gillespie was editor of Warhol’s Interview: the artist’s co-founded publication in 1969 that continues to rank among the cult statuses of celebrity art and culture.
Gillespie, who grew up in the Riverna town of Denlequin, met Warhol in Manhattan in 1979 at the opening of the 1970s artist’s Portraits exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“That was a crucial turning point in Warhol’s career because, for the first time, people started to consider him a serious artist,” says Gillespie, who believes his stature as an Australian in New York particularly impressed Warhol.
“Oh, Australian,” he said when we were introduced, and then he stepped back a bit and kind of gasped and said, “I heard it takes 30 days to travel there.”
Gillespie noted that a 30-day flyby was likely to take him to the Moon, and the Australian soon became a staple in the plant.
“Australia was fascinated by him. He loved the concept, which he couldn’t quite fathom, of the long and shallow distances, all the beautiful beaches and beautiful people,” Gillespie recalls.
“This was a time in New York when the Australian government was doing a ‘put another shrimp in Barbie tour campaign’…it made everything look very attractive and blew him away. Being Australian, you had a real cache; I think he saw me as something weird.”
Warhol became fascinated by Australian convicts and rescued Australians. At one point Gillespie asked if he could buy some naked pictures of criminals.
At the time of the artist’s unexpected death (Warhol died in 1987 at the age of 58 due to complications from surgery), Gillespie and the Australian charity team consisting of Victor and Lottie Smorgon were in the process of arranging Warhol’s visit to Australia.
Gillespie and Loti Smorgon are the only Australians ever drawn by Warhol.
Four Warhol photographs of Gillespie are now residing in Australia: one at AGSA and three at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Gillespie says he feels very proud to have gotten four, from an artist who was lucky enough to call a friend.
Perhaps that “very superficial” character is what Warhol wanted the audience to believe, Gillespie says. “But that’s not really what it was. It was contrived… And behind it was incredible discipline and hard work. It was a part of the New York sky.”
Had Warhol survived into the 21st century, Gillespie is confident the artist would have been in his element in the world of social influencers.
“He was 94 years old on a Zimmer tire with a smartphone, and he would absolutely hit everything. He would have loved the era we are in now.”