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Warhol & Mapplethorpe

Guise & Dolls


Edited by Patricia Hickson


New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015

Hardcover. 184 p. ISBN 978-0300214338. $60.00


Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert

Université François Rabelais (Tours)




This outstanding coffee table book contains stimulating essays by Patricia Hickson, Jonathan D. Katz, Tirza True Latimer, Vincent Fremont, Eileen Myles, and Christopher Makos, as well as an interview with Franco Farina by Maria Luisa Pacelli. It is published by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (in Hartford, CT) in association with Yale University Press, and is far more than an exhibition catalogue and beautiful Christmas gift—although it is linked to the remarkable exhibition Warhol & Mapplethorpe : Guise & Dolls. The museum is located halfway between New York and Boston, which in a way is oddly distant from New York, considering how utterly New York the exhibition and the concerns it chronicles are. Hickson reminds her readers of Warhol’s early involvement with drag queens and transgendered individuals, notably in his cinematic endeavors, in the context of the Factory, as famously reflected in the work of Lou Reed whose song “Walk on the Wild Side” is reproduced in its entirety.

It is cleverly entitled Guise & Dolls, which of course alludes to all sorts of cultural practices and products, starting with the circles, places and eras where and when people used “guys and dolls” in the sense of “men and women,” and taking in the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (itself based on stories by Damon Runyon). It was legendarily adapted for the screen with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955). After Warhol’s photographs, films or paintings and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, guys and dolls could never be simply guys and dolls any longer. The exhibition might just as well have been entitled “We’re born naked, everything else is drag,” in the words of RuPaul. We’re all wearing guises, especially Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and their models in that tremendous selection of gender-bending images. What is masculinity? What is femininity? And how artificially constructed is it all? That is what they are asking.

Concentrating on the “artistic” New York of the 1970s and early 1980s, the book exemplifies the pulsating and unrestrained milieu that Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe frequented or indeed organized. The two men’s significant portraits and self-portraits presented here are all ambiguous, to put it mildly. They ceaselessly question gender identification, stretching the visual possibilities of camp and playing with the meaning of butch, exploding habitual dichotomies. As far as I know, this was the first exhibition that had featured the two together. Notoriously, Mapplethorpe had an uneasy connection to Warhol, whom he wanted to emulate while considering himself his equal (if not better) at the same time.

The exhibition favored Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of drag queen portraits (1975), Christopher Makos’s “Altered Images” series of Warhol himself in drag (1981), Mapplethorpe’s photographs of rock musician Patti Smith (1975-1986) and his “Lady : Lisa Lyon” female bodybuilder series (1983). Patti Smith’s book Just Kids (2011), which narrates her eventful years with Mapplethorpe, is strongly recommended. There are highly interesting pictures of Marsha P. Johnson [7, 64], African American drag queen extraordinaire, Stonewall riot vet, gay lib activist and muse.

The subjects included Bob Colacello, transgendered actress Candy Darling and Grace Jones [152-153]. The exhibition lasted from October 17, 2015 to January 24, 2016, and boasted approximately 100 tremendous exhibits. There is a portrait of Amanda Lear by Mapplethorpe dating back to 1976. Although she has been known to lie about her age (among other things), I know she was 37 [99]. She is wearing a studded leather jacket, gypsy earrings and a gold chain with a star (her own, no doubt). By then she had appeared in one television series, one movie, and had released two singles. This was before her international career as a singer, actress, television host, painter and writer. But she had already made quite an impact as a supermodel in the 1960s and early 1970s, turning up everywhere alongside people like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, or Roxy Music, as well as serving as Salvador Dalí’s muse. The unsuspecting viewer / reader might wonder why she is featured in Guys & Dolls, but that would be because the said viewer is not aware of the decades of international mystery surrounding the possible original male sex of Lear (she spends a great deal of time denying the “rumor” these days). As an ambiguous rock ‘n’ roll chick (before she turned disco diva), she is right up there with Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull, and her place here is as logical as the self-portraits of Warhol and Mapplethorpe in drag (deliberately bad drag, often), or the portraits of Grace Jones, logically photographed by both Warhol and Mapplethorpe. Jones has long been the uber androgyne of pop culture (as she herself discusses in her 2015 autobiography, I’ll Never Write my Memoirs).

My favorite essay in the book is “Warhol’s Surfaces, Mapplethorpe’s Depths,” by Tirza True Latimer, who teaches visual studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. In a few paragraphs, it usefully situates Warhol and Mapplethorpe in the world’s history of portraiture, then reminds us of a few simple but capital facts:


Warhol’s portraits oftenexplicitly acknowledge the artifice of identity. Portraits such as those in the Drag Queen series challenge the photograph’s documentary status. Warhol’s sitters use pose, makeup, and costume to raise questions about “realness.” Warhol framed his sitters against neutral backdrops of the sort used for official ID photos and shot them at close range. The artless frontal lighting reduces relief, giving the faces the appearance of pressing against the picture plane and contributing to the overall effect of flatness. The Polaroid Big Shot camera Warhol used also flattened the field of the image. He submitted many of the Polaroids to painterly interventions, using his trademark photo-silkscreen technique to blow up and reproduce them in nonnaturalistic colors on linen supports. The silkscreen process eliminates nuances to further minimize the illusion of depth (and thus realism). [36]


The cover of the book is a perfect choice, it is a 1983 portrait of Mapplethorpe, black and red and historic, with the artist looking at us in the eye as if to defy us to peruse the book and stumble upon the well-known Patti Smith quote: “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” Strongly recommended for gender studies scholars, art historians, and Warhol and / or Mapplethorpe aficionados.



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