Andy Warhol needs little introduction. He is most well known for Pop art paintings that rejected artistic invention and conveyed the flat quality of a print, an inversion of expected painterly tropes made even more shocking by his early subjects of tabloid disasters, money, and the products of an increasingly consumerist American society. Often employing assistants for the screenprinting process, Warhol was as famous for his detachment from his artworks as for his seemingly detached persona, deadpan witticisms, and presence in New York cultural society. From 1962 on, his paintings were made almost exclusively by screenprinting photographic images onto backgrounds painted either in a single color or in flat, interlocking areas that corresponded to the contours of the superimposed images, capturing the visages of celebrities and the banality of evil found in the media’s circulation of car crash images.
Beyond these mechanically produced paintings was a body of photographic work that belied Warhol’s genuine admiration for those around him, as well as his own impulse to capture and collect images. Throughout the 1970s, when Warhol was creating commission after commission of celebrities and collectors, photography was the backbone of his process. Everywhere he went, and nearly every person he met, was captured by his camera. In addition to this, each silkscreen commission created in his studio was based on original Polaroids produced in sessions Warhol directed and shot himself—a fascinating insistence on authorship, considering Warhol was happy to set aside the execution of his paintings, a medium historically considered “high” art while photography (and certainly Polaroid) was considered “low.” Photography’s mechanized process attracted Warhol, and he especially appreciated the blown-out look that Polaroids gave his sitters, as they resulted in more graphic images with which to make his screenprints.
In late 2013, the Andy Warhol Foundation donated Red Book (1974–75) to the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. Red Book comprises of a group of thirty-six Polaroids used as source images for later screenprinting: eight images of singer-songwriter Paul Anka, six of bar-goer Alphanso Panell in drag from a larger series called Ladies and Gentlemen, and twenty-two of socialite and fashion model Edie Beale. Instead of the glamorous and self-assured poses found in the later painted portraits, the Polaroids depict triviality, even awkwardness, in their subjects. Lighting, framing, and focus are not given so much weight as the illuminated features of the sitters themselves. Beale looks aged and uncertain, but retains a joy and playfulness. Anka, obviously dressed to impress in his cowboy hat, offers tight-lipped, likely well-practiced looks intended to smolder. Panell’s portrait is the most unpresuming, as Warhol had paid for his time along with that of other cross-dressing attendees of the queer nightclub The Gilded Grape. Not expecting the portrait session, Panell’s candor and somewhat awkward presence forms part of Warhol’s larger Ladies and Gentlemen series, one of the few non-commissioned bodies of work completed by Warhol at this time. The rhythm and variance of the Red Book subjects repeatedly posing themselves for Warhol speaks to the artist’s interest in the self-conscious performance of American individualism, and how images contribute to the construction of identity.
Following each shoot, Warhol would thoughtfully organize the results into particular sequences and enter them into the red Holson Polaroid albums that give Red Book its name. This system of cataloguing and collection, filtered by Warhol’s hand, further individualizes the Polaroid portraits from the workings of Warhol’s aptly-named studio, The Factory. Due to his overarching desire to hoard and caretake, the Red Book (and other groupings of similar nature) has remained intact and in Warhol’s original order—a sequence intended to be preserved in perpetuity. When Warhol died in 1987, he left behind nearly 40,000 private Polaroid images, of which only a small fraction are organized in the more than 100 Red Books. More than simply an extension of Warholian portraiture, the Red Books and the intimate portraits therein challenge ideas of Warhol as a detached voyeur, as he would be involved in the manipulation of poses and, of course, shoot quite close to the sitters—resulting in a cataloguing of their flaws. Only when the Polaroids were translated into silkscreens would sitters obtain the signature Warholian sheen of colors, planes, and stardom; before that transformation, they appear decidedly “unfamous” (to use Warhol’s term). A testament to Warhol’s penchant for collection and organization, Red Book is an intimate look into his process and quest to collapse boundaries of high and low culture, and gives, perhaps, a unique insight into the artist himself.