Why Andy Warhol Would Have Loved RuPaul’s Drag Race
From the Catalogue
Andy Warhol’s mid-1970s Polaroid portrait series recalls his early fixation with stardom and celebrity, while successfully addressing issues surrounding gender and identity following the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. Aptly titled Ladies and Gentlemen, Warhol created this body of work at a time when the discourse on LGBT and women’s rights was particularly prevalent.
Warhol became famous in the 1960s for painting Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Onassis— all symbols of American Post-War femininity. Significant developments in Women’s Liberation contributed to a cultural shift away from the classically defined heroines of American femininity, to whom Warhol dedicated much of his early career. As an astute chronicler of the later decades of 20th century America, Warhol responded to this shift and embraced it casting Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis as transgender characters in his satirical film titled Women in Revolt in his Factory. With both Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation in full swing, Warhol discovered that the last bastions of glamour prevailed in the nightclubs of downtown New York City in the guise of drag queens.
In late 1974, the Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to paint 105 portraits of drag queens in four graduated sizes. The following year, the series was exhibited in Ferrara, Italy. Eager to continue exploring this subject matter beyond Anselmino’s original commission, Warhol more than doubled the number of portraits, working with fourteen separate models and taking over 500 Polaroids between the summer of 1974-1975. He also explored this subject in a variety of scales, from the most intimate 14 by 11 inch format to the grandest (as with the present work) measuring 50 by 40 inches, extending the subject matter beyond the realm of photographic reproduction and utilizing a more painterly approach. The bright colors and lush impasto are a departure from Warhol’s typically mechanized approach, individualizing each work within the larger series while offering the subjects a sense of purpose and identity.
The present work is a portrait of Wilhelmina Ross, a local drag queen and actress, who appears in 73 of Warhol’s portraits—more than any other drag queen from the series. She embodies the glamour that Warhol so intently sought to capture in these works. Ross’s portrait evokes Warhol’s early portrayals of ‘superstars’ in its quintessentially ‘Pop’ aesthetic, only replacing the industrial magnates, movie stars, and rock musicians of his early work with new depictions of glamour and femininity. Warhol endeavored to redefine perceptions of gender while calling attention to a significant yet marginalized community. Ladies and Gentlemen asserts the ‘drag queens’ of lower Manhattan as integral subjects within Warhol’s oeuvre of portraiture, rendering virtually anonymous individuals as equally worthy of his time and careful attention. “Drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to be to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women will actually want to be. Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal movie star womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York 1975, p. 54).
This portrait well conveys Warhol’s nuanced, artistic process while underscoring the gender play at work—she is the essence of femininity, painted with thick, long eyelashes, and deep lipstick, delicately resting her hand on her neck. Ladies and Gentlemen (Wilhelmina Ross) offers a unique scenario in which role-play becomes a part of the picture’s narrative. Together, Warhol and Ross create a new American icon that is simultaneously hero and heroine, combining painting and photography techniques to undermine the ways in which gender was constructed and perceived in mid-1970s America.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's
Signature: signed on the overlap
Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Andy Warhol: Ladies and Gentlemen, September - November 1975, p. 105, illustrated in color
Milan, Galleria Luciano Anselmino, Andy Warhol: Ladies and Gentlemen, 1976, cat. no. 3, n.p., illustrated in color
Sally King-Nero and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture Late 1974-1976, Vol. 04, New York 2014, cat no. 2850, p. 92, illustrated in color
Galleria Luciano Anselmino, Milan
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above circa 1976)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Obsessed with celebrity, consumer culture, and mechanical (re)production, Pop artist Andy Warhol created some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. As famous for his quips as for his art—he variously mused that “art is what you can get away with” and “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”—Warhol drew widely from popular culture and everyday subject matter, creating works like his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans (1962), Brillo pad box sculptures, and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, using the medium of silk-screen printmaking to achieve his characteristic hard edges and flat areas of color. Known for his cultivation of celebrity, Factory studio (a radical social and creative melting pot), and avant-garde films like Chelsea Girls (1966), Warhol was also a mentor to artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His Pop sensibility is now standard practice, taken up by major contemporary artists Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons, among countless others.
American, 1928-1987, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, based in New York, New York
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