on andy warhol's "ladies & gentlemen"
(& where to draw the line with an idolized artist)
.✫*ﾟ･ﾟ｡.★.* i am writing this piece in a time where the trans community is being attacked legislatively for simply existing. if you can financially, donate to the trevor project. support trans artists and creators and voices. your silence has the power to kill ! choose to uplift and save trans lives ! .✫*ﾟ･ﾟ｡.★.*
the subtitle of the 1979 village voice article entitled “stonewall 1979: the drag of politics”, written by journalist steve watson, remarks: “Marsha (P. Johnson)’s position on Christopher Street is double-edged. A martyr of gay liberation, (s)he is denied entrance to many bars. Andy Warhol silkscreens of Marsha sell for $1400 while Marsha walks the sidewalk outside, broke.”1
andy warhol (1928-1987), deemed by some “the pope of pop art”, was at an all-time high in the 1970’s: a frequent studio 54 patron who received commissions from kajillionaires, ran his own magazine, & was raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from his work. he tended to focus on themes of celebrity, pop culture, and glamour, but in the mid 70’s he decided to delve into a new subject matter.
warhol’s 1974 series ladies and gentlemen was commissioned by luciano anselmino, an esteemed art dealer. encompassing polaroids & colorful screen prints, it shone a spotlight on black & latine trans women & drag queens who frequented nightlife hotspots in greenwich village.
dear reader, however celebratory in tone these works may seem, there is more under the surface that upset me and will probably affect you as well. andy warhol, with this series, exploited these marginalized communities monetarily and socially, giving them no agency in how their images were reproduced or where they were sold. it makes you wonder where one draws a line in art history: do we purposefully ignore a creator’s biography and personal beliefs in favor of their innovations? do we acknowledge their deep-rooted flaws and throw their body of work in the trashcan? is there a grey area to be found?
the gilded grape was a nightclub on 8th avenue that acted as a safe place for trans women of color and drag queens. it also happened to be close to warhol’s factory, his studio & hangout for his entourage and“superstar” subjects. around 1975, luciano anselmino approached the artist to discuss a series of silkscreen portraits for his lavish living space. bob colacello, future interview magazine editor, decided to invade the gilded grape, an 8th avenue club that many publications uncomfortably describe as the seedy, shady, and rough underbelly of nightlife, to scout out models, offering a one time payment of $50 (about $279.59 today with inflation) to be photographed by warhol.
the factory crew ended up with a total of 14 sitters. they got to choose how they looked, both in terms of garments & pose. warhol took over 500 polaroids to draft a final few silkscreens. ladies and gentlemen, as these works were named, were first exhibited at the palazzo de diamanti in ferrara, italy, from september to october 1975. this was the sole time these specific 10 prints were properly put on display in his lifetime. the tate modern in london describes the finished pieces as “(deviating) from the original proposal in favour of an exploration of performance, glamour and personality.”2 the application of pigment extended past the boundaries of makeup on the face, reflecting the nature of gender expression and femininity. they are playful, colorful, and lively, aligning with the personalities of the sitters. with these polaroids, he was able to expand on the commission and make it into a series of his own, producing more prints and the photographs on their own as well.
the gilded grape shut down for good in 1977 when nyc mayor abraham beame embarked on a crusade against trans & drag bars and pornography. it reopened soon after in a new location called the “gg knickerbocker” and later “gg’s barnum room”.
after the main shoot for ladies and gentlemen, andy warhol had each model sign the back of the chosen polaroids so he could keep track of them. however, upon exhibiting them in ferrara and post-mortem, the portraits subjects remained anonymous. my theory? warhol hid their identities because they weren’t famous, recognizable, or paying customers. he had to give up his precious money so he could complete this job. the models were also living in an era where transness wasn’t as publicly recognized, which probably also played a part.
it took thirty-nine years (until 2014) for the andy warhol foundation to release 13 out of 14 names of the trans women & drag queens who sat for him.
alphanso panell. broadway. easha mccleary. helen morales. iris. ivette. kim. lurdes. marsha p. johnson. michelle long. monique. vicki peters. wilhelmina ross.
this wasn't the first time andy warhol disrespected his models. one of his superstars, candy darling, a trans woman, died of lymphoma in 1974. during her period of sickness, he offered no financial assistance and didn't even attend her funeral. in her 1992 memoir, holly woodlawn, fellow warhol superstar, reminisces on the day before her friend’s death:
“i wiped the tear from my own eye and turned to mitchell (st. john), commenting on how nice it was of andy to have taken care of candy’s hospital bills. mitchell turned to me and said ‘andy who?’… i was stunned that andy hadn’t been more generous to the one Superstar who seemed to idolize him the most.”3
this leads one to think that he used her for her beauty and glamour, and once he got bored of ms. darling, he left her in the dust. woodlawn discusses andy's other "casualties", such as edie sedgwick & andrea feldman, the latter who was rumored to have left a scathing note to andy before jumping to her death at the age of 24 in 1972. they all died desolate, unhealthy, and broke. and who connects them all? warhol. see, i’m not blaming him for their deaths of course. i just think it’s ironic how he had the power to help them out a bit like they did for him, but he ultimately chose not to.
in the 1979 village voice article i quoted at the beginning of this piece, marsha p. johnson, trans pioneer and activist, states how ironic it was that her own image was selling for obscene amounts of money while she was struggling to find a stable home and stay alive. she closes her interview by stating:
“It’s changed, honey, this street is a different place. But when it gets down to it, it’s money that rules the world, and Lucifer is coming. Yes he is. In the meantime, spare change for a dying queen, darling?”4
you would think that a man as rich as *andy warhol*, who got paid a hefty $1,000,000 for the ladies and gentlemen series, would be able to pay his financially unstable models more than $50. maybe that’s just me.
andy, as a cisgender gay man, took advantage of a marginalized group that he wasn’t a part of, and used their visages to make millions for himself. the subjects didn’t even get to see the final products themselves. this series does depict a very important era in LGBTQIA+ history. the silkscreens are colorful and bright, celebrating the vibrant lives of an important community. but is also a representation of voyeurism, exploitation, and the discrimination trans people faced and continue to face in the modern day.
so, as art lovers and history buffs, where does this leave us? i don’t know about you, but as i grew up, i was conditioned to believe that andy warhol was this god among men in terms of artists. i learned that he changed the game for all future artists and was a visionary who everyone loved.
as an art historian, i can appreciate the contribution warhol made to the larger scheme of the art world. i can recognize his importance. but these facts don’t mean that i have to ignore the harm he’s done. at the end of the day, he was a capitalistic, mass-producing (sometimes hands-off) artist who appears to have only cared about his own image and success despite what biographical accounts say about him.
the same thing goes for artists like pablo picasso, salvador dalí, & paul gauguin (god i hate gauguin), amongst many others. you can admire how pretty a painting or a sculpture is, & what role it plays in the art historical canon, but the beauty of a piece shouldn’t overshadow what a horrible person it’s creator is.
Steve Watson, “Stonewall 1979: The Drag of Politics,” The Village Voice, June 15, 1979 / October 14, 2020, https://www.villagevoice.com/2019/06/04/stonewall-1979-the-drag-of-politics/.
Tate, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tate, 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/andy-warhol-2121/ladies-and-gentlemen.
Holly Woodlawn and Jeffrey Copeland, A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992), https://archive.org/details/lowlifeinhighhee00wood, 263.
see footnote 1.