Meet Tootsie Warhol, the Former Lawyer-Turned-Trump Impersonator Who’s Using Performance Art to Take Down the President
Tootsie Warhol thought artists weren't making enough anti-Trump art. So he decided to make his own.
You might have spotted him during VIP hours at the Armory Show—Cheeto-orange skin, trademark bouffant, and that distinctive Queens accent, voice at once booming and nasal.
President Donald Trump wasn’t hitting up the fairs this week, but his impersonator, artist and activist Tootsie Warhol, was seemingly omnipresent, at SPRING/BREAK Art Show and the Jewish Museum’s Purim Ball on Tuesday, the Armory Show and the after party at the Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, and Independent Art Fair and SCOPE on Thursday. (The final stop will be today at Art on Paper.)
At the Independent, one exhibitor pulled her phone away from her ear, and turned to Warhol. “Hi Donald,” she giggled, amused by his outlandish makeup and pillow-stuffed physique—Trump as caricature, grotesque and offensive.
“You’re doing a lot of business there, I like to see that,” Trump/Warhol told her, before turning to the booth assistants. “She’s making deals, making money—I can tell she’s a star. If the art market ever totally craps out, you guys should all come to work for me at the White House. You would be my art advisory team. We would make the White House look tremendous!”
Such interactions are typical for the artist. “I really try not to impose myself on people, but people just start laughing,” said Warhol, who is dressing up as Trump in an effort to denounce the nation’s president.
He has had plenty of time to perfect his impersonation, first unveiled at the Whitney Biennial over the summer. The performance was titled Making the Biennial Great Again, and was staged nearly every day for two months—mostly outside the building’s front door, at the museum’s request, so as to not distract from the work on view.
“By the third day, too many people wanted to take selfies with me,” Warhol said, noting that the museum welcomes his Trump persona at festive events like last month’s Whitney Art Party (which got him featured in both the Daily Mail and Vanity Fair).
Warhol began the project in response to what he saw as a major gap in this year’s biennial. By his count, there were only two works that directly addressed Trump.
“That is less than one percent of the over 200 works on view,” he said. “To me, this was like having an art show about art in America during the Vietnam War and not even talking about the Vietnam War. I had no training in performance or acting, but I thought, ‘if they’re not going to put Trump in the biennial, I’m going to put Trump in the biennial.'”
He hurriedly threw together a costume—dark suit, white shirt, a too-long red tie, a terrible wig, and, of course, the garishly applied makeup. (“It’s professional clown face paint that takes two showers to get off.”) That’s how Tootsie Warhol, and his Trump character, was born.
The artist, who also noticed a lack of Trump artwork throughout the fairs, understands why some artists might be hesitant to make work about the 45th president. “People don’t want to offend or alienate half of their collectors!” Warhol said. But as a self-taught artist, he doesn’t share their concerns.
Until just a few months ago, Warhol, age 35, was a lawyer. He spent two years as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, assisting victims of domestic violence, and most recently was at a New York firm working on major litigation and representing several nonprofits. (He prefers not to disclose his real name or that of his former employer.) Since November, he’s been a full-time artist and activist working to oppose Trump. This week’s appearances are an encore to the biennial performance.
“We have to do everything we can do beat Trump, because it is so hard to beat an incumbent,” said Warhol, who actually had the chance to meet the president with one of his former firm’s clients the week of the inauguration in 2017, shaking Trump’s hand in the lobby of Trump Tower. A photograph of the encounter made the front page of the New York Times website. “It was a surreal experience and it changed my life.”
Warhol’s first works were prints, made from photographs of his encounter with Trump, the images crudely defaced. They have titles like Self portrait with orange person (Thumbs Up)—an image originally taken by former Trump aid (and infamous The Apprentice contestant) Omarosa Manigault Newman.
A former Spanish and American history major, Warhol has no art training to speak of, but he’s been involved in New York art institutions for years, as a member of MoMA’s Junior Associates, the Guggenheim’s Young Collector’s Council, the Whitney Contemporaries, and the Frick Fellows.
“I joined those groups the minute I heard about them and I maxed out my credit card,” Warhol recalled. “I just realized that I really love art!”
And despite his legal training, Warhol remains convinced that his art is his best tool in fighting the Trump administration. Having met the man for himself, he believes that encountering his version of Trump’s thinly veiled sexism, homophobia, and racism can change people’s minds about the president.
“I think by feeling the real hatred face-to-face makes a difference. It’s not just something that you see on TV where you’re like ‘well, that doesn’t really effect me,” he said. “All of a sudden you have this guy who is channeling Trump, and that toxicity—it starts to feel a lot more real.”
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