We are so accustomed to seeing Warhol as a seminal game changer that it’s easy to forget that like most artists, he started out in a much more conventional vein, as evidenced by his junvenilia and other early works on display at the Whitney’s wonderful major Warhol survey. The New York Academy of Art’s recent exhibit, Andy Warhol: By Hand, running somewhat concurrently with the Whitney retrospective, offered a rare opportunity to sample Warhol’s seductive skills as a draughtsman and illustrator—apart from such well-known commercial work as his I. Miller shoe ads and album covers.
Over 150 of Warhol’s personal drawings, done between the 1950s and the 1980s, reveal a more intimate side of Warhol, one that frankly acknowledges his sexuality, (as does the “Sex Parts” series at the Whitney) and even shows flashes of tenderness, something not usually associated with the Factory man. Culled from the private collections of art dealers Daniel Blau, Paul Kasmin, and Anton Kern, the New York Academy show was curated by Vincent Fremont, who helped run the Factory studio for two decades and was one of the founders of the Warhol Foundation after the artist’s death, and the New York Academy’s president, David Kratz.
Whether depicting feet, hands, children, or men’s torsos and lower bodies, Warhol exhibited an unusually fluid and confidant hand, one that enabled him to make the most out of the sparest of lines. (A few drawings are vaguely reminiscent of Matisse.) He also frequently traced from projected images of photographs; many of his 1950s tracings were taken directly from the pages of Life magazine. As time went on, he relied primarily on this technique, as in his highly stylized rendering of Mick Jagger (1975), based on Andy’s Polaroids of the rock god, or his startling large-scale portrait of a mother breastfeeding her baby (1981) — one of a series of drawings called Modern Madonnas — which was also the surprising subject of half a dozen Warhol photographs.
The drawings exude a great deal of charm–a word not often applied to Warhol’s work. They also display humor — a gently sly, humanistic humor very different from the cynical irony underlying most of Warhol’s ground-breaking oeuvre — from his iconic (and canny) Pop send up of consumerism (Campbell soup cans, Coca Cola) to his potent and disturbing Death and Disaster series. Or for that matter his prescient philosophy of art as first and foremost business; he appropriately dubbed his studio the Factory.
Among the most charming drawings are those of children, drawings that are naïvely childlike themselves (and devoid of any apparent prurience); his early images of flowers (which eventually morphed into his trademark silkscreen trope); and his renderings of male nudes, more affectionate than erotic. His drawings of feet are particularly agile; one holds a paintbrush between its toes; another grasps a pretty bouquet; a pair of feet clasps a “Camp” soup can.
There is nothing “Factory” about this work, done for Warhol’s private pleasure and thus possibly the most hands-on of his oeuvre. These are purely personal creations, rather than the celebrated creations of Warhol’s brilliantly devised personna. Generations of art students, following Warhol’s lead, thought they could become artists without ever learning to draw. Warhol clearly enjoyed drawing, and in its subtle way, it underpins his inimitably innovative media manipulation. In his drawing practice he played not only with subject matter that recurred throughout his career (celebrity; self-portraits; commercial products) but experimented with different drawing techniques — utilizing ballpoint pen, blotted lines, graphite and acrylic paint.
Warhol the great genre-bender and uber-brander was a genius at transforming his subject matter into a cinema verite of contemporary culture. He virtually created the culture of celebrity, and he understood—and brilliantly used–the power and pervasiveness of images long before Instagram. This exhibit presents Warhol on an immediate, accessible, human scale, providing another, lesser-known dimension to the ultimate media master, an artist who was as multifaceted as his work.
Phoebe Hoban is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).