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Warhol and his Women

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On the 25th anniversary of his death, Stylist examines the iconic artist’s complicated relationship with the opposite sex.

Words: Terri White

Additional Interviews: Mark Smith, Jo Usmar

She had been waiting for him on the north side of New York’s Union Square for three hours. When he arrived, they travelled up to his studio in the elevator. While he took a phone call from a friend, she slipped a gun out of a brown paper bag and, as he shouted “Valerie, don’t do it! No! No!”, fired three shots. One bullet hit him in the chest, causing near-fatal internal injuries. When arrested, she said that he “had too much control over my life… He had me tied up lock, stock and barrel.” The bloodied man was the 39-year-old father of Pop Art, Andy Warhol. The woman with the gun: radical feminist and writer Valerie Solanas. They’d had a dispute over a script.

Fortunately, Warhol survived the attack, but this violent episode, on 3 June 1968, has been seized upon by some as proof that the artist was a misogynist, a manipulator, controller and destroyer of the women who surrounded him. But he is also undoubtedly the creator of some of the most iconic, enduring images of femininity in history. According to those Stylist interviewed for this feature, he was also a good man and a great friend. So what is the truth about Andy Warhol’s complex relationship with women?

Twenty five years after his death, Warhol is one of the world’s most famous artists – not to mention the most lucrative, with his work accounting for one-sixth of all contemporary art sales. He was the father of the Factory, a studio populated by his ‘superstars’: a motley crew of intellectuals, drag queens, actresses, models, writers, socialites and artists. From there he produced films, paintings, scripts, photographs and even started a magazine, Interview, in 1969. He was fascinated by the concept of celebrity, long before such a thing really existed. In fact, he began collecting the autographs of Hollywood stars in his early childhood. His idea of a good picture was “one that’s in focus and of a famous person,” and he memorably said that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes”.

Pop Art (broadly defined as popular culture presented in an impersonal way) was his movement and Warhol’s subjects were diverse - they ranged from monarchs to movie stars but he was equally obsessed with iconic brands including Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup and cold, hard cash. “I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money,” he once said.

The way he focuses on sorrow and pain...Warhol is rarely as simple as he seems on the surface

Of course, the images of his female subjects are among his most striking and form a substantial body of work, but many believe they are also reductive; the emphasis is on the lips, hair and eyeshadow, making sitters including Joan Collins, Grace Jones, Diane von Furstenberg and (our cover star) Jackie Kennedy Onassis appear one-dimensional and superficial, when they were, as people, anything but. “The lipstick and hair colour are gendered signs to be sure,” says Dr William Ganis, associate professor of art history at Wells College, New York. “Some scholars have suggested Warhol was making them into drag queens of sorts – a caricature of woman.” The artist made no bones about emphasising the surface, saying, “I am a deeply superficial person.” But that’s not the whole story: Warhol was also fascinated by the suffering very famous women went through behind the painted-on smiles. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, explains, “Some of his images are actually really harrowing.”

Marilyn, Liz Taylor and Red Jackie were originally part of a 1962-3 series called Death And Disaster, and those criticising the simplicity of these pictures as proof that Warhol objectified women are arguably missing a far deeper significance. Marilyn was painted just two weeks after her suicide in 1962, Elizabeth Taylor was gravely ill when he created Liz Taylor and Red Jackie was made after the death of JFK. Another, Blue Jackie [1964], even used an image from the late president’s funeral. “The way he focuses on sorrow and pain… Warhol is rarely as simple as he seems on the surface,” says Jones.

While Warhol may have delved into these women’s darkness, and the sorrow surrounding them, the artist was unashamedly obsessed with beauty and how to capture it. “Even beauties can be unattractive,” Warhol once said. “If you catch a beauty in the wrong light at the right time, forget it.” He made sure this didn’t happen with an art version of retouching. He painted his subjects’ faces with white paint so their features stood out on the Polaroids which formed the basis for his screenprints. Factory regular Vincent Fremont described the process: “Making the face white compensated for the effect of the flash; flattened and softened the surface of the woman’s face, and hid wrinkles. This softening effect also helped with the high contrast which developed when the Polaroid was transferred to the acetates used to make the silkscreens and eventually, the paintings.” His images of women were beautiful yet unnatural.

True Love

Arguably there was nobody more beautiful to Andy Warhol than socialite Edie Sedgwick even though the lovers he took were male. He met Edie in January 1965, at a party in New York. “One person fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known,” he said of her. “The fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love.” Their relationship lasted just longer than a year, but it has attracted the strongest accusations of misogyny levelled against Warhol.

He had a vision for Edie, in which she would become the queen of the Factory. To achieve this, he put her in several of his films including Poor Little Rich Girl, Kitchen and Beauty #2. But many of those around Edie (including her one-time rumoured lover Bob Dylan) blamed Warhol for her heavy drug use, anorexia and spiralling mental health issues. Those within the Factory disputed this, suggesting that Edie abandoned a devastated Warhol after Dylan convinced her that she could be a bigger star away from him. Factory photographer Billy Name said, “She called her own shots… Her charm was not really manageable by Warhol or anyone else. Edie brought on her own destruction.”

I never bought the characterisation of Warhol as evil, but he was scarred

Whatever the truth about Edie, Warhol definitely did offer women at the Factory a community and creative freedom they struggled to find elsewhere. And far from surrounding himself with vulnerable victims, Warhol’s female superstars cast list is characterised by strong women who wouldn’t have accepted a patriarchal regime. Women such as model Nico, who sang with experimental band The Velvet Underground, or Brigid Berlin, an acclaimed artist who was part of Warhol’s biggest prank, when, in 1969, he declared all of his paintings were her work. Brigid was larger-than-life proof that Warhol wasn’t only interested in stereotypically beautiful women – she said of meeting him, “My mother wanted me to be a slim respectable socialite… Instead I became an overweight troublemaker.”

Another of his muses was the Amazonian, outspoken Grace Jones, who could hardly be accused of being a wallflower. “He idolised and adored women. He wasn’t in any way a misogynist and certainly not a patriarch,” says Warhol academic Gary Needham. “He was attracted to women who weren’t playing by the rules or shackled by society. The flipside of that is that Warhol got bored quickly and moved on from one to the next.”

While he switched his affections frequently, and was often accused of being cold or removed, claims of cruelty in Warhol’s attempts to control women are wide of the mark. He had a close (but typically complicated) relationship with his own mother, who was herself passionate about art and lived with him in New York for many years. He even used her handwriting on his illustrations. Close female relationships were incredibly important to Warhol right up until his death from pneumonia in 1987 – a death that devastated many of his closest female friends. “He was a conflicted person,” confirms Dr Ganis. “I never bought the characterisation of Warhol as ‘evil’, but I do think he was a psychologically complex, scarred human.”

Art critic Jonathan Jones believes that the ‘cold’ Warhol was simply a persona he adopted. “He was happy for people to see him as this completely robotic character, with no compassion.” But it’s clear from the women we spoke to this was just a facade. “He’s not just interested [in them] coldly; his art if full of soul and poetry and that goes for the way he depicts women too,” Jones says. He was clearly fascinated with women – both in his art and in his personal life – and none of these relationships were black and white. Typically for Andy Warhol, they were rather more Technicolor.

See what Warhol's women had to say about working with the artist

Picture credits: Rex Features

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