At the Wadsworth Atheneum, Warhol Dresses Abstraction in Drag

THE DAILY PIC: From day one, Warhol was troubled by sex and by abstract art.


THE DAILY PIC (#1470): Warhol made these two images of transvestites in 1975, as part of his Ladies and Gentlemen series, and they are now in the show called “Warhol & Mapplethorpe: Guise & Dolls,” at the wonderful Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Their strange blend of abstraction and representation complicates both: The casual, almost accidental abstraction of those vertical swipes of color disturbs our ability to see Warhol’s subject, and the subject distracts from our ability to go all connoisseurial with the abstraction.

I think that combination gets at two of Warhol’s lifelong obsessions, and two of the major drivers of his art. First, gender and sex were always a “problem” (his word) for Warhol, from the college moment when he did his first self-portrait-as-a-girl, and before. (There’s a story that as a boy he couldn’t even finish a Primanti’s meat-and-french-fry sandwich, as any properly manly Yinzer ought to be able to do.)

Second, and maybe just as important, was his vexed relationship with abstraction, which was both utterly ascendant at the moment Warhol came of age as an artist, and just about to teeter over into old hat. His college teacher Balcomb Greene, who started out as abstraction’s great polemicist, was switching to figuration just when he was teaching Warhol what was what in art. (Which, incidentally, included teaching him about Marcel Duchamp and Dada.)

The important thing about Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen pictures is not that they give new respect to transgendered people, or that they manage to look great while doing it. What matters is that they reveal gender, at least at that moment, to be an unending source of confusion, even darkness, for Warhol and others, and that only failed abstraction could render that.

Warhol always wished he could conquer abstraction, and knew perfectly well that he ought not to bother. Ditto for manliness. (The Andy  Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.; art © 2014, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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