In the years since Andy Warhol’s death on February 22, 1987, the art world still cannot decide whether he was, as one critic claimed, “the most brilliant mirror of our times”, or was he little more than a purveyor of pop culture mediocrity who Robert Hughes described as “one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life”?
Regardless of what decision is eventually arrived at twixt 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 a corporate logo, a 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 intelligencia, not even the recent stratospheric prices his works now demand and which are greeted with cries of amazement and outrage, than the fervor and anticipation in 1988 of the auction of the contents of his home and personal collection at Sotheby’s in April of that year.
An inveterate collector of fine art, furniture, jewelry, decorative arts, and just plain junk masquerading as kitsch, Warhol’s twenty-seven room townhouse was overflowing with what can only be called ‘stuff’. In his own words, Andy was “always looking for that five-dollar object that’s really worth millions” and now people were looking to buy those same mundane objects believing that they would now be transformed from garbage to gold simply because of who had owned them.
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 access to photograph the interior, sending internationally-known photographer David Gamble to give a glimpse into the very private sanctuary of an artist who had lived a very public life.
Previously 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 Gamble had been known as one of the most prominent portrait photographers in the world and whose subjects had included Eric Clapton, Stephen Hawking, and Margaret Thatcher among many others. And, while some would point out that photographing interiors is far removed from portrait photography, in point of fact what was needed was just what Mr. Gamble was able to achieve, which was 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.
Basically, Gamble is able to offer a stunning reflection of the Warhol the public rarely saw, whether it’s in the series of photographs 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 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 frumpy kitchen reflecting the perpetual presence and influence of his departed mother, who had lived with him until her death in 1972 (and of whom Warhol, as late as 1976 when friends asked of her, would say, “Oh she’s great. But she doesn’t get out of bed much”). Looking at the manner the atmosphere is captured by Mr. Gamble, part hearth and home and part Norman Bates, it’s easy to see how Andy’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 gone.
In sum, whether one acknowledges Warhol as a world-class artist or consummate con man, in these works Mr. Gamble offers a glimpse into the private life of an artist whose impact on art, society and popular culture is undeniable and probably incalculable. An artist pictured here sans artifice, absent the mask, and certainly without the wig.