"Andy Warhol: Photography," Jan. 11-Mar. 18, 2001, at the International Center of Photography.
Something quietly erotic is happening in midtown. Not at the fading sex emporiums over on Eighth Avenue, but in the basement of the new International Center of Photography on Sixth. It's stopless kissing. French kissing. Couple after couple, kissing and kissing and kissing, all courtesy of the late Prince of Pop, Andy Warhol. As curator Christoph Heinrich put it, the 54-minute silent film Kiss (1963) is the gem of the show "Andy Warhol: Photography."
Kiss is on view in the ICP's basement theater, as are several "screen test" films of the likes of Susan Sontag, Edie Sedgwick and other visitors to the Factory. The exhibition, which was organized at the Hamburg Kunsthalle and has already appeared at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, includes everything photographic about Andy: pictures of him as a child in Pennsylvania and as a young bohemian in New York; pictures of Jackie Kennedy and other Pop stars he clipped from newspapers and magazines; paintings he made from those sources; photobooth strips and Polaroids of celebrities, artists and friends.
After seeing this show, I could believe that the Rolling Stones named their album Sticky Fingers after Andy, whose Polaroids made for the album cover are on view here. Sticky fingers? Andy's fingers stuck and stuck on the button of his Polaroid, leaving behind an archive of more than 60,000 snapshots that he would use as source material for his paintings. For his early paintings he had used archival photographs, but fearing copyright lawsuits, Warhol decided to make his own photos. "He was never interested in the technique [of photography]," said Heinrich. "It was more about button and push."
Still, Warhol clearly invented the photographic esthetic that now rules contemporary art -- the Postmodernism of Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and all their followers - and invented it some 20 years it bloomed as part of the 1980s art boom. And curiously enough, Warhol rarely, if ever, sold a photograph during his lifetime.
One definite highlight is a wall of press photos of Marilyn Monroe, hung next to those fabulously familiar Monroe silkscreen prints that Warhol made from them. Marilyn weeping, Marilyn stretched like a lazy, yawning cat on the couch, Marilyn over the subway grate holding down her butterflying dress. Of all these images, Warhol chose the one that captured her most empty expression, something Heinrich explained as a purposeful election of a pose devoid of emotion, the real Marilyn hidden behind the flash of fame.
Another highlight of the show -- photographs of Warhol in drag. Definitely pre-Wigstock and very much proto-Minimalist, Andy was nevertheless a diva, a raging queen. Pure tongue-and-cheek was the curatorial decision to place the Polaroids of Warhol in drag next to '80s aerobic diva Jane Fonda.
From the 1980s are several images of Jean-Michel Basquiat, or his body parts, anyway -- head, thigh, and bikinied crotch, assembled into a large composite silkscreen resulting in a portrait of Basquiat posing in the manner of Michelangelo's David. The young Basquiat is just one member of the entourage of this section of the show entitled "Most Beautiful Boys." Explicit sexuality was always part of Warhol's work, which includes drawings of penises graced with bows as early as the 1950s.
But the film Kiss is the best reason for anyone to attend this show. If I were the Supreme Commander of the Universe, I might make seeing this film mandatory viewing for all of my obedient subjects. The film invited you into the private sphere of loved-ones locking lips -- a silent homage to the passionate squirms, the to-ing and fro-ing of an exchange of fondness between one and another. The kiss of couple number five has many smiling cessations, pauses evocative of kissers saturated in bliss. For couple number six, the man's neck is as stiff as an erection, his cold-blue-eyed gaze towards his lazy lover as impenetrable as his buttoned-up shirt.
Kiss number seven involved a mustached man, and being ruthlessly anti-mustache, I can hardly bring myself to believe that I actually sat through this one. The woman rimmed his mustache with her tongue, and he reciprocated by lightly kissing her eyelids -- you could almost hear her purring. Kiss number eight took place on a leopard-skin divan between a couple wearing black turtlenecks. Their kiss was the kiss of the mind, their lips rarely touching. It was rather the anticipation of lip-contact that kept them enrapt in one another's arms.
I forgot all about my world, my life, forgot all about the nutty pace of New York City in that hour in the basement of ICP. Boredom never played its jingle in my mind. Instead I was transported to another space, and given the chance to contemplate the intricate idiosyncrasies of kissing. Kiss is the masterpiece produced from Warhol's filmic experiments. Sitting tentatively on the precipice of boredom, Kiss is a work of art on the cliff of happiness verging on a fall into the blissful abyss of titillation.
APRIL ELIZABETH LAMM is an art critic living in Berlin.