Three decades after Andy Warhol’s death, he remains one of America’s most provocative artists. His influence on popular culture is so pervasive that each emerging art movement after him has had to grapple with Warhol’s focus on surface perfections and his singular celebrity. Despite their complicated feelings, many contemporary artists say they continue to admire Warhol’s radical experimentation in all media and reach back to him as an unflagging inspiration, citing his practice of fusing photography and painting, as well as his presentations of race, gender, religion and desire.
We asked an intergenerational group of artists at the forefront of painting, photography, video, installation and sculpture to gauge the impact of Warhol’s influence on their work. They include Yasumasa Morimura, who spoke of learning from Warhol the relationship between handicraft and mass production. Glenn Ligon, for his part, praised the Pop master’s use of color, saying it helped him illuminate the hard realities of race in paintings based on Richard Pryor’s scabrous stand-up comedy.
“Much of my work had been in black and white,” Mr. Ligon recalled. But in the ’90s, he recognized “that the spoken word — Pryor’s off color jokes — needed to be in color. I thought, ‘What’s my model for using color?’ Andy Warhol.”
Here are edited excerpts from their conversations.
Warhol exposed so many people to so many different things that they hadn’t really looked at. He forced the viewer to rewrite narratives in ways that queered our own notions of reality and what’s acceptable.
What’s most interesting to me are his photographs. I love the casualness of them, the intimacy in the party scenes. For “Cry, Baby,” my exhibition at the Warhol Museum, I was influenced by his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series [of African-American and Latino drag stars Warhol photographed in 1975 with a Polaroid and whose images he transferred onto silkscreen]. His works of Wilhelmina Ross are alongside my painting of Miss Toto, from a series of Miami drag queen portraits. But Warhol’s drag figures were represented in a flattening way that removed imperfections — Wilhelmina is missing a tooth in Polaroids, which was edited out. That move by Warhol removes some of the humanity of those individuals while celebrating them in a more fashionable way. I spend an immense amount of time rendering those imperfections in pencil. I’m trying to celebrate and invent some sort of new fictions of the queer black male by subverting pre-existing Caribbean and ancient Fertile Crescent religious myths.
“Devan Shimoyama: Cry, Baby” is at the Andy Warhol Museum through Mar. 17.
Andy Warhol has been a vital influence. I have responded most to his iconic portraits of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor; two exceptional women who, just by their presence, provided platforms for other women. These works referenced mostly celebrity or political archetypes but were also deeply rooted in the visual culture of their time. I thought about how I might position the women of my images in a similar dialogue. In 2008, I thought about the power of Michelle Obama being the first black first lady in the White House and how crucial this moment was for young black girls, to see themselves in her. So, using similar images of Andy Warhol’s Jackie silk-screen canvases, I reclaimed the space with Michelle O. Both women harbored strength, intelligence, generosity and beauty.
For an earlier work, “Sweet and Out Front,” I was invited to respond to Melvin Van Peebles’s film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971). I noticed that the women in the film were reduced to secondary roles. They seemed marginalized, and it was a lost opportunity to celebrate black women. My response was to position these female characters at the forefront.
I took cues from the formation and color rhythm of Andy Warhol’s photo booth style portraiture in the Jackie canvases. “Sweet and Out Front” was my first attempt at silk-screen. I love the residue quality and photo manipulation process. It allows for a painterly presentation and graphic pop-cultural forwardness. I like the Warholian notions of allowing the work to exist as it is, fusing photography and painting. And I appreciate the tension and the gray area between painting and photography, which represents a mystical area of discovery.
Warhol’s work is unabashed, unapologetic and queer. His paintings are stylistically fashion forward, of the moment and in your face political. I like to think that I do the same with my work. One of our differences is how we represent women. We both deal with the notion of desire from a queer lens. But his is from an asexual white male perspective and mine is from a lesbian perspective. Desire manifests in his art as a longing and desire, consumed by a particular beauty, which framed his own sexuality as one that leaned toward femininity. My desire is defined by the need to connect with and celebrate black women, not only as models, muses and mentors. My desire is also at times motivated by sexuality: the queer lens of black women loving black women, which is seldom celebrated. Like Warhol, I make my own icons of beauty and desire.
“Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me” is at the Wexner Center through Dec. 30.