Andy Warhol’s Gay Wit

THE DAILY PIC: When the popular illustrator foreshadows the Pop artist.

Andy Warhol illustration

Andy Warhol drew this image sometime in the later 1950s, and it’s now on view in a show of his drawings at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York. Not all of Warhol’s works as an illustrator are worth taking too seriously: He mostly comes to matter later, in the ’60s, when he deliberately, self-consciously leaves the “manual” labor of illustration behind in favor of avant-garde and quite conceptual art. (He had an excellent grounding in the latter, as is not always recognized.) This image, however, has a witty, brainy side that makes it worth a good look. Warhol distilled the Greek vase-painting tradition to the well-turned male calves that are so important in it. (Those vases were in his art-school textbook.) Then he compares the 2,500-year-old Greek leg-fetish to the modern American one that won fame for Betty Grable and Marilyn–and, later, for Warhol’s own Edie Sedgwick. That makes for a subtle equivalence between Warhol’s own homophilic and “Hellenic” gaze and the officially sanctioned one of the red-blooded American male. As usual, Warhol’s early work is at its best when it outs his sexuality, and makes his Eisenhower-era viewers deal with it.

Several of Warhol’s clients from the 1950s say they hired him as a cheaper, less-political avatar of the then-famous draughtsman Ben Shahn. This image paints him as something more like a gay Saul Steinberg. (Image courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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