February 9, 2016
The first exhibition to pair works by Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol is on view at Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery. The works in the exhibition, which date from the 1950s through the 1990s, emphasize such common themes as social and political power, the evolving acceptance of cultural differences, the inevitability of mortality, and the glamour and despair of celebrity.
The exhibition juxtaposes works that underscore these themes, beginning with The Family (1976), Avedon’s ambitious conceptual portrayal of sixty-nine individuals at the epicenter of American politics at that time, together with Warhol’s monumental portrait of the revolutionary Mao Tse-tung, Chairman Mao (1972).
In the following conversation, Ara H. Merjian, professor at New York University, discusses the themes presented in the exhibition with Gagosian’s Jason Ysenburg.
JASON YSENBURG Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol share many things in common, everything from an early interest in photography to living and working in New York City over the same four decades. Both were internationally influential artists who shared many of the same friends and sitters. Each became larger-than-life figures, even celebrities, themselves. What strikes you as some of the most interesting connections and differences between them?
ARA H. MERJIAN I suppose what was most striking was how their bodies of work intersected largely in an oblique sense: with the exception of Avedon’s stunning mural photographs of the Factory crew (just as its glory days were winding down), the two artists never really interacted or collaborated in any active sense, despite sharing some salient interests (fashion, “society” portraiture, counterculture, etc.). I’m not certain if we may chalk this up to a “narcissism of small differences” in the Freudian sense or just plain happenstance. In any case, where there are indeed places of intersection or overlap in their work—however unwittingly—these appear compelling, and I think they mutually illuminate each one’s
JY To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to compare the works of these two artists before, either in an article or an exhibition. What was your first impression about being asked to write on both artists together? How did that perspective shift as your research developed?
AHM To be fair, the last Gagosian catalogue on Avedon’s murals included some terrific scholarship on the rapports—however faint or disparate—between them. That said, I suppose the lack of outright, obvious influences—despite some general affinities—made the juxtaposition even more interesting to pursue. Scratching the surface, the two artists were drawn to some very similar material; while their approaches largely differed, we find some significant connections, whether in the representation of death or of glamour. As far as a shift in perspective goes, I suppose I was struck most by the different trajectories of the artists as the utopian promise and violence of the sixties gave way to the seventies; whereas Warhol recoiled from the more scabrous, political problems he addressed early on, Avedon found himself more and more drawn to the wounds in American culture. I thought it was interesting—and forthright—that he chalked some of this up to his own sense of guilt over having been a certain kind of photographer in the past. I found that refreshing, honest. It suggested to me Freud’s argument about guilt being one of the primary motivators of civilization.
JY How do you find the juxtaposition of paintings and photographs relate? How do the different media communicate and what themes emerge in the selection of works included?
AHM Well, as of the 1960s, Warhol’s painting is derived directly from the photographic image, so the mix of media seems to me an apt one —even more so when we consider the extent to which Avedon’s photographic portraiture draws some of its force from a keen sense of painterly iconography. As for the show’s themes, nearly any gallery exhibition juxtaposing the work of two artists is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. In this case, however, both artists really engaged with these subjects in an active, consistent sense.
JY Both artists were deeply involved in magazines, starting from very early in their careers. How do you think that helped cultivate their image, shape their work, and expand their influence?
AHM Warhol certainly got a toehold in the New York art scene through his illustration work, while Avedon’s talent for fashion photography catapulted him to the pinnacle of the medium in venues like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. The mass publicness of these forums certainly formed a piece, to a great extent, with both artists’ respective subject matter and styles. To recall just how important print culture remained at the end of the last century, we need only recall Warhol’s launching of Interview.
JY Avedon is well-known for his ability to address a huge range of diverse interests, including fashion, politics, civil rights, etc., in his portraits. Do you think that Warhol achieves a similar breadth in his portraits?
AHM It’s undeniable that Warhol’s work from the early and mid-1960s held up a mirror to American culture in all of its thrills and frustrations, even some of its most violent and savage episodes—the race riots in Birmingham, the atom bomb. But more importantly, his work reproduced the means of production themselves—their uniformity, their near instantaneity—and thus perhaps opened up a means of critiquing them: a critique that I would say he gradually abandoned. Avedon’s work seems to me divided as well, but in a different sense. If his high-fashion spreads undoubtedly served a taste-making class, he clearly found himself drawn to representing power in a different, more nuanced sense. His documentation of 1960s counterculture—as well as the institutions of power against which it revolted—remains, I think, a vital testament to the era.
JY The body of works being exhibited reinforce how both artists transcended traditional portraiture. How do you think both artists might be perceived as interpreters of the mass age of American culture?
AHM Working with photography, both artists engaged de facto with mass-produced imagery. But Avedon’s portraiture, as of the 1960s, seems to me to want to hold at bay any sense of mass diffusion. So many of the images are staged with a sense of their formal plasticity and quirkiness. Warhol took his engagement much further, experimenting with film, television, even computer-generated imagery. While his famous quip about wanting to be a machine belies a sense of his own hand and his feel for formal anomalies, there is no doubt that he remains the consummate reinterpreter of earlier avant-garde attempts to exploit the image in its age of mass reproduction. The ends to which it has become exploited are, of course, less than utopian or sanguine.
JY If Avedon and Warhol had not existed, what do you think we would have missed in our cultural development?
AHM To be honest, these kinds of questions always seem to me more existential than art historical; they reveal more about our cultural anxieties and needs than about the artists per se. And they impose a kind of retrospective fatalism. That said, it’s plain that if Warhol hadn’t existed, neo-capitalism would have had to invent him. And I’m certain it would have. As for Avedon, nearly every society has had its portraitists from Rome on forward; Avedon happened to bring to bear on postwar America a keen eye for the personality that exceeds the individualism of his subjects.
"Avedon Warhol" is on view at Gagosian Gallery Britannia Street, London through Saturday, April 23, 2016.