Andy Warhol is the artist that almost everyone knows. Whether you know him as being one of the main protagonists of the Pop art movement in the mid 20th century, or just as “that artist who uses bright colours and makes pictures of soup cans.”
Pop art as a movement began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. New and young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums didn’t have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day, especially those living in cities.
“Popularly radical and radically popular”, Warhol was an artist who reimagined what art could be in a new age of social, political and technological change and helped the Pop art movement to become what it is known as today.
Back in 2020, a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London was the first Warhol exhibition at the gallery for almost 20 years and it was one of the few exhibitions I got to experience first-hand last year. Personally, I have been to numerous Warhol exhibitions as well as seeing his work at almost every major gallery or museum in the UK and Europe I’ve been to. Normally these show the same artworks: silkscreens of soup cans, portraits of queens, Marilyn Monroe, Coca-Cola logos and flowers.
If you wish, you can read more about some of Warhol’ more known artworks in these two blog posts below.
But this exhibition at Tate Modern featured something new that I’d never seen before, or even known about — as well as being topical and relevant in society and the news at the time of summer 2020 (and still now).
This something was 25 (out of a known 268) artworks from his Ladies and Gentlemen series: portraits of Black and Latinx drag queens and trans-women. At a time in today’s society when there is more awareness towards Black and Latinx transgender communities it seems fitting that this series was displayed in this exhibition.
These communities were not always celebrated though as Corey Tippin, an actor and Warhol’s former scout and make-up artist explains:
“These were very different times. The idea of drag queens who actually considered themselves women hadn’t come into consciousness, even among most doctors, so they would buy drugs on the black market and many of them got sick. They didn’t have much money, but they had so many little theatrical tricks: the will, the transformation, the risk. They really were my heroes.”
To create his Ladies and Gentlemen series Warhol took over 500 Polaroid photographs of 14 different models. By using a Polaroid camera to take photographs it allowed him to capture images (almost) immediately (obviously back in the 1970s digital cameras and iPhones did not exist and film photography/film development was a lengthy process) and then share them with the model to decide together which ones they thought worked the best. A selection of were then enlarged onto silkscreens to create the artworks.
Equally, the simplicity of the Polaroid camera compared to a traditional film camera allowed for a more laid-back photoshoot setting and thus created more informal poses through spontaneity. The use of a Polaroid camera wasn’t limited to this series however, often Warhol used this method to capture images of pop icons or paying customers. These models were not paying customers though and instead were paid for their service. They were intended to be “impersonal” and “anonymous”.
Unfortunately, since this series was a commission most of the models never saw the finished silkscreen portrait artworks of themselves (not knowingly at least) as the artworks were sent to the commissioner (Luciano Anselmino) right away. This also touches on the ethics of this series as despite it being an exploration of performance and personality it documents a community which Warhol was not a part of, with the models having little say in the final outcome or where they would be shown.
Equally, the fact that the commissioner came up with the theatrical title and concept implies that they were less interested lived experience of the models and more about the dramatisation of gender. Nonetheless, this series did (and still does) shine a light on the homosexual, drag and trans community that at the time was beginning to boldly embrace their sexuality despite the backlash.
Recently there has been (and still is) a realisation of the under-representation of trans people in the wider art world. This may also be why most of the names of these models were only identified properly for the first time in 2014 by the Warhol Foundation. The fact that the models’ names (other than those signed by them) were not known or archived properly could be a record of discrimination faced by trans and Black/Latinx trans people at the time.
The names discovered by the Warhol Foundation are an official list of 13 of the 14 models: Alphanso Panell, Broadway, Easha McCleary, Helen/Harry Morales, Iris, Ivette, Kim, Lurdes, Marsha P. Johnson, Michele Long, Monique, Vicki Peters and Wilhelmina Ross. Shown below is the original Polaroid photographs and silkscreen artworks of seven of these.
Please note, the information for each model is taken from the Tate website and thus “we” refers to the Tate organisation.
*Since it is not possible to know how the models in the series would have self-identified, we are using the terms drag queen and trans-woman. At the time Warhol made these pictures, the terms drag and trans were used, but often in a different way from today.
We have chosen to use the pronouns she, her, hers when referring to the subjects unless we know otherwise. Based on what we know of some of the sitters, it seems likely that this would have been their preferred pronoun. Some of them performed in drag productions, but they also lived much of their lives as women.
After Wilhelmina Ross, Warhol made the largest number of portraits of Panell — 60 paintings out of seven Polaroids. Panell’s identity is known because she signed her Polaroid, with what is thought to be her birth name. Not much more is known about her.
Warhol created 19 paintings of Broadway from an original selection of 47 Polaroids. She signed one of her Polaroids but we know little more about her.
Morales signed one of her Polaroids as Helen Morales, and one as Harry Morales. Corey Tippin met Morales at the Gilded Grape. Warhol enjoyed Morales’s sitting so much that he asked her to return the following day, where she appeared without the bouffant wig. Warhol made 31 paintings of Morales and took 42 Polaroids.
During their photoshoot, Warhol took 36 Polaroids of Iris, three of which he went on to use for 26 paintings. While Iris did not sign her Polaroids, she has been identified by Corey Tippin, who knew Iris personally. We don’t know much about Iris’s life. She may have moved to Paris in 1977.
This painting is one of 28 portraits Warhol made of Lurdes. As with many of Warhol’s works from the early 1970s, he uses his fingers to mix areas of colour. The orange silkscreen ink in this work makes the green background more visible, which makes it difficult to know which layer was added first.
Ross appears to have been Warhol’s favourite model for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. He made 73 paintings, based on seven Polaroids, 29 drawings, and five collage portraits of Ross. He also created five giant 10-foot canvases of her.
Ross was born Douglas Mitchell Hunter in Kansas City, Missouri, moving to New York in 1970. Her name was a mix of the model agency Wilhelmina and Warhol’s close friend Diana Ross. At the end of 1974 Ross moved to Puerto Rico in 1974, where she lived for ten years. When she learned she had AIDS, she returned home to her mother where she was nursed for the last two years of her life.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson is the most famous subject in the Ladies and Gentlemen series, although Warhol only created two paintings of her. She was a fixture of the West Village scene and was often referred to as ‘Saint Marsha’ — when asked by a judge what the P. in her name stood for, she replied it stood for “Pay it no mind!”.
Johnson is believed to have been a key figure in the Stonewall Uprising, which helped to usher in the gay and trans rights movements. Meanwhile, together with Sylvia Rivera, she founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R), which offered support to homeless gay and trans youth. She continued to fight for LGBTQ+ rights throughout her life, as well as performing as part of the drag revue Hot Peaches. In 1992 Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River; many believe she was murdered.
From an aesthetic opinion, this series really does differ from many of Warhol’s other portrait series. Here he uses clashing and harsh colours compared to the more usual vibrant and harmonious colours.
Is this Warhol’s way of expressing what he saw in these trans-women as he photographed them?
Their sense of freedom despite the hate they may have received daily; although their communities where becoming more accepted in a more liberal society, this was not always the case and people still fought back against them. Does the use of this colour to exemplify this give the series an inherent power in how the models are portrayed? It can be said so when compared to how he depicted celebrities.