Exhibition sheds new light on Andy Warhol and his drag and trans portraits

Andy Warhol, self-portrait (© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual and DACS, London)

The Tate Modern in London has announced it is to host a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s work next year. It will be this huge institution’s first Warhol show in over 20 years and will run from March to September 2020.

Announcing the show, Tate Modern says it wanted to explore how, “A shy, gay man from a religious, migrant, low-income household … forged his own distinct path to emerge as the epitome of the pop art movement.” 

It promises to offer, “a rare personal insight into how Warhol and his work marked a period of cultural transformation.

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Warhol’s sexuality influenced much of his work, particularly his movie-making. This show will bring together 25 of the images from his mid-70s Ladies and Gentleman series. 

Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to produce a series of portraits of drag queens. The resulting series, Ladies and Gentlemen, featured subjects mainly from the black and Latino communities. Some of the sitters were trans or gender non-conforming. 

Ladies and Gentlemen (Helen/Harry Morales), 1975, by Andy Warhol (© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual and DACS, London)

When the images were first exhibited they were displayed anonymously. However, the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York has undertaken research to identify the sitters, and for this show, the names will be displayed alongside the portraits. 

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Warhol found most of his subjects at a New York City bar called the Gilded Grape on Eighth Avenue and 45th Street. He sent assistants to find them, and the 14 sitters were each paid $50-$100 to pose for Warhol’s Polaroid camera.

From 500 Polaroid images he shot, Warhol created screenprints and over 250 different paintings. It’s his biggest series of images, but one of the lesser-known.

Nine of the sitters – such as Helen/Harry Morales (above) – wrote their names on the original Polaroids.

Others did not but have been recognized since. For example, in 1997, Hot Peaches theatre troupe co-founder Jimmy Camicia saw one of the images in an exhibition and immediately recognized Wilhelmina Ross, who had worked alongside him in the troupe. 

Also included in the series – and recognized subsequently – is Marsha P. Johnson, who participated in the Stonewall riots and 1970s trans activism. Only one of the models remains unknown.

This Warhol portrait of singer Debbie Harry also features in the Tate Modern show (© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London)

“In order to highlight the significance of this series within Warhol’s practice, as well as the contribution of the sitters, Tate will also include this information alongside the exhibited portraits,” a Tate spokesperson confirmed to Gay Cities. 

“The presentation of 25 portraits from the Ladies and Gentlemen series at Tate Modern next year marks the largest showing of these works in this country.”

Announcing the exhibition at a press launch in London last week, Tate Modern director Frances Morris said Warhol is, “an artist who feels more relevant and influential today than ever.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol (© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual and DACS, London)

“He is one of the most recognizable names in the late 20th century but in today’s climate, it feels important to take a more human and more personal look at somebody who is a very familiar artist.”

The Tate Modern show will feature over 100 Warhol works. It runs from March, 12th, through to September, 6th, 2020. 

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