In 1997, “The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Curated by Mark Francis and Margery King, it traced Warhol’s fascination with glamour and its effects from his early years as a fashion illustrator to his involvement with New York City’s downtown scene of the 1960s and the celebrity culture of the ’70s and ’80s, presenting his paintings in tandem with such personal and cultural ephemera as publicity photos of movie stars, magazines, scrapbooks, and snapshots. Art historians like Thomas Crow and Anne Wagner had already begun to rescue Warhol from critical opprobrium, but “The Warhol Look” met such disdain head on, assimilating exactly the kinds of influences that once diminished Warhol’s reputation into the very heart of its claims for his achievement.
Rereading the exhibition catalogue for “The Warhol Look” 20 years later, however, reveals its limitations. In the section on “Drag and Transformation,” for instance, the authors’ treatment of Warhol’s engagements with plastic surgery and drag within the context of self-fashioning and subcultural milieus fails to capture Warhol’s fraught relationship to his own body and sexual identity. Such an approach, so captivating at the time, now seems to smooth over the tensions between beauty and trauma that cut through so much of the artist’s life and work. Critic Holland Cotter recognized this at the time, dubbing the exhibition “Warhol Lite” for its treatment of Warhol’s art as a mere backdrop for costumes and Warholiana while conceding that it raised important questions about Warhol’s role as a homosexual artist in postwar America. “There’s definitely a show inside this one screaming to get out,” he concluded.
“Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body,” an important exhibition curated by Jessica Beck, associate curator of art at the Andy Warhol Museum, was that show. “On the surface, it would seem that Andy Warhol’s artistic project was concerned primarily with beauty and celebrity,” writes Beck in her essay for the catalogue, “yet there is conspicuous lack of beauty in Warhol’s work.” Like Francis and King, she rightly does not dismiss Warhol’s absorption with surface appearance as a sign of his lack of seriousness. Unlike them, she puts the focus on the body, and the strategies of display and concealment by which Warhol constrained its representation.
For Beck, the body in Warhol’s work is a site of “torment and affliction.” This is already evident in student work of 1945–49, included in the show, depicting figures variously covered in a horrible rash, breastfeeding a cat, and shooting projectile vomit toward the viewer. One of the earliest drawings in the exhibition is Constipated Woman, an undated piece from the 1940s in which Warhol’s developing linear style has an anxious, strained quality befitting its subject. A highlight among his early paintings is The Lord Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose (1949). When this work was rejected for an Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibition (despite the support it received from visiting judge George Grosz), Warhol changed its name to Nosepicker 1: Why Pick on Me. Taken together, the two titles encapsulate the intersecting subjects of difference, defiance, and disquiet underpinning the exhibition.
In Beck’s show, Nosepicker was installed opposite Warhol’s “Before and After” paintings of the 1960s, which were drawn from a classified advertisement for rhinoplasty in the National Enquirer. Building on recent work by art historian Edward D. Powers cited in the catalogue, the juxtaposition underscores the earlier work’s pun on the picking of noses. At the same time, materials in a nearby display case revealed the connection between the “Before and After” series and the artist’s own lifelong anxieties about his physical appearance. A passport photograph from 1956 embellished with pencil showed the artist considering the effect of an altered nose and hairline on his looks; he had plastic surgery on his nose in 1958.
Presented in the context of this exhibition, Warhol’s graphic silkscreen paintings of car crashes and electric chairs, from his “Death and Disaster” series of 1962 and ’63; his abstract “Oxidation” series of 1977–78—made by urinating on canvases primed with metallic paint—and his renderings of physiological diagrams from the ’80s speak to his testing of the limits of bodily representation. Among the canvases here that likewise experiment with images of the body, Philip’s Skull (ca. 1985), derived from a CAT scan of a patron’s cranium, is an arresting memento mori that reminds us that Warhol’s “society” commissions should no more be segregated from his achievements than his commercial art practice.
Philip’s Skull was one of several works in the show that drew on Christian iconography. See, for instance, the Christlike corpse with outflung arms in Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963–64), or the cross worn by a nun in Hospital Disaster (1963), a heavily inked panel depicting a contemporary nativity. Warhol’s references to Catholicism were far from straightforward, however; the central figures in both these works hang upside down, speaking to his frequent inversions of the religious images to which he made reference.
“My Perfect Body,” running through January 22, 2017, culminates with Warhol’s spectacular silkscreen painting The Last Supper (Be a Somebody with a Body), 1985–86, fluorescing blue under black light as though the subject of a medical or forensic examination. The 12-foot-wide panorama opens with an image, taken from a classified ad in a muscle magazine, of a bare-chested bodybuilder posing under the mantra BE A SOMEBODY WITH A BODY. To the right of this paragon, like an ellipsis, is a twice-repeated image of Christ at his last meal with his disciples, copied from the one in Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century masterpiece. Warhol produced around one hundred works juxtaposing idealized bodies with imagery from The Last Supper; as Beck points out, in correlating the makeover to the Eucharist they distill Warhol’s preoccupation with bodily transformation.
Nevertheless, one should not overstate the metaphysical nature of Warhol’s obsessions. Ads like the one in The Last Supper, for example, refer back to midcentury physical culture magazines that often (and sometimes primarily) served as gay erotica. Warhol has come to occupy a central position in recent scholarship on queer art and culture, but as Beck notes in an interview with Douglas Crimp, there remains an unwillingness to understand Warhol as a fully sexual being. “My Perfect Body” and its accompanying catalogue address Warhol’s sexuality more openly than many previous exhibitions, particularly in its inclusion of his 1950s ink drawings of nude young men embellished with little hearts, his 1970s “Torso” and “Sex Parts” series of silkscreen paintings, and perhaps most tellingly, his 1963 film Sleep, in which the camera pans slowly over the naked body of poet John Giorno.
But, as with his representations of the transformed or traumatized body, Warhol’s depictions of the male body beautiful were frequently colored by his caustic humor and complicated self-image. A catalogue essay by British art historian James Boaden describes how Warhol’s early film Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of… (1963), in which an athletic Dennis Hopper and a scrawny Taylor Mead flex their respective muscles in futile imitation of a bodybuilder competition, succeeds by virtue of “its failure to live up to the prototype from which it copies.” Even this piece, however, was something of a diversion, Warhol’s insecurities about his physique notwithstanding. In a 1982 segment from Andy Warhol’s TV included in the exhibition, a pallid, 50-ish Warhol declares himself a “weakling” to a personal trainer before executing no fewer than 42 perfect push-ups.
Without repeating the mistakes of “The Warhol Look”—which was reviled for including, among other things, mannequins dressed in Warhol’s clothing—“My Perfect Body” also makes use of personal relics to help carry its thesis. One of the most poignant displays in the exhibition is a collection of “rupture easers,” the surgical corsets that Warhol wore to protect injuries resulting from his 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanas. These are the same garments that Warhol lifted his shirt to reveal in the photographic portraits that Richard Avedon took of him not long before his death in 1987.
Prophetically, Warhol depicted an advertisement for exactly this kind of medical device in his 1961 painting Where Is Your Rupture, which asks the viewer to imagine the unseen traumas suffered by a blank torso. This work was missing from the exhibition, although Beck did include Warhol’s clipping of the source advertisement on which it was based. But what is most striking about Warhol’s own corsets is that they have been dyed in a rainbow of colors, transforming them into undeniably aesthetic objects. In Warhol’s life, as in his art, beauty was inextricable from pain, and vice versa.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 130 under the title “‘Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body.’”