Andy and Oz: Parallel Visions
A collaboration between the National Gallery of Australia
and The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, USA.
11 October until 30 December 2007
The final take: Andy lives on as a shining star
I had an appointment to go to the Factory. It was a weird place with dozens of people running around. It was so mad … and there was Andy, as quiet and still as a little ghost. He was almost a non-person and yet he motivated all this activity. I found the stillness fascinating. There was something about him that caught the imagination. I immediately liked him even though he didn’t say very much. (Loti Smorgon)1
Warhol does not seem to have believed in reincarnation – at least not in the conventional sense. After surviving being shot by Valerie Solanis in 1968 he may have felt he had been given a second life, although he became preoccupied with his health and mortality. In much of his work there is also a sense of ghostly recurrence, as in his repeated images of Elvis, Jackie Kennedy or Natalie Wood where they at times appear to be on the edge of disappearance. Born of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, Warhol’s identity with being the outsider as well as intrinsically connected with being an American was entwined in his art. He recognised parallels between America and what he had heard about the vastness of Australia, and thought his work would have an audience here. Henry Gillespie, who knew him in New York, recalls that Warhol wanted to travel to Australia and asked if it would take thirty days to get there: ‘I said, “Andy, 30 days would get you to the moon!” and he laughed.’ Gillespie continues:
When I saw him on later occasions he often enquired about Australia. He was intrigued at the distance and the vast space and had seen tourism ads with beautiful beaches and lifesavers and it whet his appetite … Australia represented a new world, a new frontier and a challenge … He thought his style would have popular appeal in Australia. He began talking about specific works he could do. One of the works he wanted to do was a series with the working title, ‘Australia’s Most Wanted’, to be screenprints of our worst criminals from police mug shots.2
One can imagine the results – a contemporary Warholian take on Sidney Nolan’s bushrangers and Ned Kelly series! It would certainly have added an absurdist dimension to the already extensive range of portraits that Warhol had done over the years. Both Henry Gillespie and Loti Smorgon from Australia had seen an exhibition of Warhol’s portraits at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1980. Smorgon recalls that she had responded very positively to Warhol’s work in the show. Around the same time, her husband was approached to see if he would like his portrait done by Warhol. He declined but thought that his wife, being keen on art, may be interested. She recalls:
I had been out of the room and when I came in I was asked if I would like to have my portrait done. I already had a couple of portraits which I was happy with and really didn’t think I needed another one. When the question was posed another way, ‘How about a portrait by Andy Warhol’ that was a different matter. I said, ‘of course!’.3
Both Smorgon and Gillespie met with Warhol for their portrait sittings at the Factory in an old Con Edison power sub-station at 22 East 33rd Street, not far from the Empire State Building. They recall that Warhol took hundreds of polaroids, inviting them to participate in the selection of the ones they liked best. For Portrait of Loti, Warhol prepared his sitter by having his make-up artist paint her face white. ‘In his portraits of women … he more or less obliterated the face. He got his make-up artist to paint women with a white mask, like a geisha – from the forehead to the buttons. Then the make-up artist made up the face, painting the eyes and the lips.’4 Smorgon recalls that Warhol wanted to know what colours she liked: ‘I said he shouldn’t make it too pretty … But he did the opposite. He did what he wanted and he seemed to see in me something that was quite serene. Looking back, it was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’ Gillespie recalls his experience with similar enthusiasm:
Sitting for my portraits was a magical experience ... Andy buzzed for his assistants and part of the dining room was set up for the sitting. I was seated against a blank wall and treated like a movie star … He worked quickly, all the time flattering the sitter and calmly giving directions which way to look ... ‘chin up, look this way and so on’.
Having known Warhol was a revelatory experience … He was the first to interpret and chronicle the celebrity and consumer culture we live in. I can be in the supermarket looking at lines of products or travelling down the highway and see a billboard and it reminds me of Andy … ‘Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’. There are very few people who survive their times but Andy’s star has shone ever brighter with the passing of the years.5
Andy Warhol was prescient when he said that silver – the colour of the silver screen and the space age – was the colour of the 1960s and also of the future. Some four decades later, on the auspicious occasion of the silver anniversary of the National Gallery of Australia, Australian artists have the opportunity to shine with Warhol at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It is an opportunity to celebrate and to contemplate diverse viewpoints and parallel visions across time and place.
Australian Painting and Sculpture after 1920
1 Loti Smorgon in a telephone interview with Deborah Hart, 3 September 2007
2 Correspondence from Henry Gillespie to Deborah Hart, 1 September 2007
3 Loti Smorgon in a telephone interview with Deborah Hart, 3 September 2007
4 Loti Smorgon in a telephone interview with Deborah Hart, 3 September 2007
5 Correspondence from Henry Gillespie to Deborah Hart, 1 September 2007
This exhibition is proudly supported by the National Gallery of Australia Council Exhibitions Fund