When I think of Andy Warhol, the very first thing that comes to mind is a Campbell's soup can. I think of how he elevated everyday American objects such as the soup can, the Brillo box, and the Coca-Cola bottle into high art--expensive art, too, with Warhol’s works garnering some of the largest auction sales in modern history. I think of his many, many screen printed paintings of Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and others, and how they are loving (or at least kindly) dedications to the stars themselves, but there’s also another layer, too- a layer of gentle ribbing, of making fun of the subject, always with a wink of irony. We're all-American for loving coke, but we’re also dolts for buying into its pervasive advertising, for example. Andy Warhol was nothing if not a critic of modern life. But in the mid-1960s, he turned his eye towards an actual fact of life itself: death.
Really, death has always been a part of art history. That's one of the beautiful things about art-- it can detail and document and celebrate every facet of our existence. And so much of the great art that we know and love today works in the capacity to stave off one of the terrible side effects death-- being forgotten. Portraits, stone monuments, ancient coins-- they all aim to ensure that the subjects depicted will be remembered and revered for all eternity. But Warhol’s take on mortality wasn't about memorializing. He instead focused on the direct causes of death, or the aftermath of a terrible accident. His series, Death and Disaster, is one of the most well-known and of his career. But Warhol wasn't the first artist to focus on the everyday tragedy of death as a subject to quite this revealing and exploitative extent. No, that honor might very well belong to someone else-- an immigrant photographer working in Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we are going to discover the subject matter and motivations behind Andy Warhol's Death and Disaster series, and relate them to the work of the greatest crime scene photographers in history, Weegee. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
The name Weegee might not be as familiar to you as the name Warhol is. We're all surrounded by Andy Warhol. He's in our cultural DNA, so to speak, and he is generally considered one of the two most influential and popular artists of the 20th century, alongside Pablo Picasso. Ask any regular Joe on the street who Andy Warhol is, and he can probably give you at least a semi-decent description of his iconic style. He affected the art world, of course, but also extended far beyond it, inspiring musicians, filmmakers, fashion and graphic designers, and more. As Phoebe Hoban, the biographer of Warhol acolyte Jean-Michel Basquiat wrote, quote, “To legions of art students, Warhol was the white-wigged Wizard of Oz, his famous career a grail to every MFA and struggling downtown artist in residence.”
So many of us automatically gravitate towards that white wig, dark sunglasses, and the glam of his so-called Factory, his ultra-cool den of artists and like-minded aesthetes, filled to the brim with silvery tinfoil, heroin-chic models, and drugs. But Andy Warhol’s beginnings were rather humble. He was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, On August 6, 1928. Though he was born in America, he was deeply affected by having devoutly Catholic Slovakian immigrant parents who were solidly working class. HIs father was a construction worker, and his mother an embroiderer. As Warhol biographers have noted, his family maintained very strong ties to their Slovakian roots, having chosen Pittsburgh because of its sizable enclave of Eastern European immigrants. To young Andy, this probably felt a little bit like belonging, and not belonging-- he was American, yes, but also not, by virtue of his family ties.
Being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant family has its unique challenges-- trying to find where you belong, navigating an unfamiliar environment and society, trying to pass as a quote-unquote local. Though Andy Warhol himself wasn't an immigrant, he considered himself as an outsider in some ways. And besides coming from an immigrant family, he also thought he had a physical disadvantage. When he was eight years old, he contracted Chorea—also known as St. Vitus's Dance—which is a rather rare and sometimes fatal disease of the nervous system which causes involuntary movements in one’s limbs. It is probably due to his experience with chorea that he developed a fear of doctors and hospitals, and he became, famously, a hypochondriac. He was bedridden for several months during that year, and continued to have periods of confinement multiple times in his youth. Such events led to another sensation of outsider status for Andy-- not only was he physically disadvantaged due to his illness, but he also became an outsider to other children, having missed large portions of schooling. To cope with his months in bed, Andy bonded with his mother, who passed along her love of art and taught him to draw. It was around this same time period that she bought her son a camera. Drawing and photography soon became the young Warhol's two biggest passions.
Some three hundred miles away from Warhol's Pittsburgh home was another man, himself an immigrant who, during this same time period, had recently found his own life's direction. His name was Ascher (or Usher) Fellig, though he went by the Americanized name of Arthur Fellig. Fellig was born on June 12, 1899 in the town of Złoczów, near Lemberg, Austrian Galicia, now modern day Zolochiv in Ukraine. When he was 10 years old, Fellig emigrated with his mother and three siblings to New York City, following in the footsteps of his father, who had come to the country three years prior to establish roots. Unlike Andy Warhol, though, Arthur Fellig didn't let his outsider status affect him, and worked hard to overcome it. He dropped out of school in his early teens to work odd jobs to support his family. Somehow, serendipitously, one of his first jobs was working as a street photographer, taking pictures of children riding a pony. He would then sell the pictures to the children's proud parents at a markup of 50 cents for three photographs. As Felling later told his friend, fellow photographer Ralph Steiner, quote, “It was a good racket, but the pony ate too much.” He fell in love with the camera almost immediately, and was hired quickly to act as an assistant to a commercial photographer in the early 1920s. During that decade, he did almost everything that he could do with photography--developing, printing, editing, selling, and creating. His biggest job came in 1924, when he took a job as a dark-room technician at Acme Newspictures, which later became United Press International Photos. He juggled this and several other low-paying jobs, which gave him just enough free time so that if he limited the amount of sleep he got every night, he could have enough time to go out into the darkened city and shoot his own images.
Like Andy Warhol would do later, Fellig carefully created a very specific persona--even opting to adopt a new nickname, which we’ll talk about shortly. By the time he was in his 30s, he was overweight, brash, with uncombed hair, and never without his favorite vice-- a cigar, of which he would usually smoke up to 20 per night, according to reports. As his career progressed, he would eventually make enough money to keep himself comfortable, particularly since he never married or had a family of his own, and he lived mainly for his work. Soon, Fellig was able to sell his photographs to many of the top newspapers, magazines and tabloids of the day, and he was paid handsomely for it, sometimes receiving $5 per picture, which was a pretty penny for an image back in the 1930s and 40s. He was printed by the New York Post, the Daily News, the Herald-Tribune, the World Telegram, and beyond. But he was always very careful to not let on whether or not he was financially stable. Probably this was his attempt to stay identifiable with the Everyman, as he most often covered the events or causes with happened to the lower classes instead of those of the elite. His images are democratic-- crossing class and race lines and with no particular social or political affiliation, though most of his works are pretty closely tied to the working class. To seem more like them, for example, Fellig would later take all of his suits to a tailor who would add at least two inches of fabric to the entirely of the outfit. This made it appear, according to editor and columnist Allene Talmey, quote, “as if it had been bought off of a pushcart on New York City’s Orchard Street.” He lovingly called himself “the gentleman bum.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhola pursued art throughout his young life, eventually graduating from the Carnegie Institute for Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in design. Soon after graduation, he moved to New York City- to Arthur Fellig’s territory- to begin his career, AND his own personal branding. One of the first things he did upon arrival was to drop the final “a” from his last name, altering “Warhola” into “Warhol.” It would be just the beginning of meticulous crafting of the Andy Warhol persona.
Originally Warhol was a commercial artist-- a highly successful one at that, creating award winning content for the likes of Glamour Magazine, where he landed his first job. But as the 1950s came to a close, he began focusing more of his time on painting, and in the early 1960s he debuted his brand-new concept: Pop Art, which focused on the presentation of mass-produced consumer and commercial items. In 1962, he exhibited a series of 32 paintings in a gallery in Los Angeles, painstakingly replicating, almost exactly, the look of Campbell’s soup cans. To top it all off, each of Warhol’s canvases were lined together on shelf that went the length of the gallery, effectually giving the space the look and feel of a grocery store. Living approximately 50 years later, it might be hard for some of us, especially those of us born after Warhol's heyday, to understand the sensation that this caused throughout the art world, and permeating into the cultural experience of the time. We grew up on TV commercials and comic books and advertising seeping in all around us, after all. But in 1962, this was huge. Crazy, in fact. Why would an artist devote his time to painting images of something seen everyday, something mass-produced, something… Well... Common?
Okay, I’m not the first person to say this, and I certainly won't be the last, but you may know that the art world can sometimes be a teeny tiny bit elitist. Especially prior to the mid-20th century, much of art was viewed as transcendental, as glorifying or beautifying the human existence. Art is among the special things that set us as humans apart from other of earth’s creatures, right? So why would Andy Warhol want to bring art down in this way? Indeed, much of the response to the Campbell's Soup series was not positive at the outset. The Los Angeles Times critic who covered the exhibition wrote, quote, "This young 'artist' is either a soft-headed fool or a hard-headed charlatan." And a snarky gallery down the street stacked a pile of actual soup cans in the window, advertising them for sale at 2 for 33 cents. But as we know now, this was truly a turning point for Warhol-- his breakout moment-- and for the art world in general. This was art that was truly democratic, spoke to the Everyman, and, in a detached and ironic way, captured the idea of consumer America in one fell swoop.
A couple of decades prior, Arthur Fellig was working in New York at Acme NewsPictures, carefully crafting his photographic style in his off hours. He searched for his own version of America, which, like Warhol's, was heavily influenced by everyday life. What would become the everyday of Fellig, though, was darkness- literal darkness--specifically night. It is these nighttime pictures that would become his bread and butter. Though he didn't exclusively shoot in the evening, it is really these photographs that we think of when we think of Weegee: shadowed alleyways, movie theaters, shuttered storefronts, and crowded streets, with their inhabitants all starkly illuminated by his flashbulb. He began to hone his style, manufacturing pure and spontaneous black-and-white images that focused many times not only on that literal darkness of the environment, but on the metaphorical darkness of urban life. He could frequently be found at the scene of a terrible fire, a murder, a car accident, and the images he created there are seemingly equal parts exploitative and detached. His photographs could capture the aftermath of a grisly death destined for the tabloids of the day, but they were also just documents of the event itself, too. And much of the time, the scene of the crime or the burning building wouldn't even be his subject matter. Instead, he focused predominantly on the human element. As Ralph Steiner wrote, quote, “early in his career he discovered that most corpses and fires look pretty much like one another….now he looks first for the human element, for anything incongruous, for little points which may be more interesting and revealing than the main event.” So Fellig turned his lens towards the policeman carrying out newborn kittens from that burning building, or to a scene of onlookers rubbernecking a crime. These scenes can be humanizing, but then others are very film noir-- policemen peering over crime scenes in their fedoras, pavements darkened by spilled blood, and even images of stone-faced, fur-wearing women whom the photographer would identify in his capital-letter scrawl in the margins as quote “the murderess.”
It wasn't all tragedy and debauchery with Arthur Fellig, though. Some of his most engaging images are of children cooling off in the spray of a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, or of couples kissing in the midst of a crowded movie theater. He photographed people laughing at a bar, dancing in Harlem, and leaving the opera. But it is his images of the grittier realities of the city at night that transfix viewers. And the man who would soon style himself as Weegee felt more at home in this space. He once said, quote, “Sometimes a night goes by with no murder and it don't seem right to me. I think something’s wrong.”
Fellig recognized that he had a good thing going. He had a style that was eye-catching. His works were in demand. So in 1936, he left his various odd jobs in favor of something entirely different-- to become a freelance photographer-- and that changed everything. About his method of working, Weegee said, quote, “In my particular case I didn't wait 'til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”
Fellig’s involvement with the police teletype was integral to his work-- and integral to his nickname and branding. At the beginning, he did skulk around police headquarters, but eventually was granted access to his own police teletype-- a kind of electric typewriter that would transmit messages from point to point, and Fellig was one of the very first civilians in history to have one of his own. He then set up house in an apartment across the street from police headquarters. He left his teletype on all day and night, and would jump to action anytime a noteworthy event came to his attention. It was said that somehow he even seemed to wake up from a dead sleep to get the best scoop. Later, he would also install a police radio in his car, where he would drive around all hours of the night and arrive on the scene far earlier than his competitors from any tabloid or newspaper. And it is by this seemingly supernatural ability to arrive almost right after a crime had been committed that Weegee received his nickname-- a phonetic spelling of the popular fortune-telling Ouija board game. Instead of O-U-I-J-A, Weegee spelled his moniker “W-E-E-G-E-E-.” -- Weegee, to which he would later add the superlative “The Famous.” Weegee the Famous, he called himself, in a both ironic and clearly non-ironic fashion. And thus, the branding of Arthur Fellig was complete.
One of Weegee’s most famous works is a picture titled Their First Murder. This particular photo doesn't even show a murder at all-- instead, we see a group of children--probably aged between 7 or 8 and upwards to 15 or 16 years old-- as well as two women, reacting wildly to witnessing a murder. In Weegee’s first book, published in 1945 and titled Naked City, he did pair this image with one on the following page of the corpse lying in the street. But it is really Their First Murder that strikes our attention. It’s hard to look away from the faces here. In his book, Weegee wrote a one-liner to describe the scene as he remembered it, saying quote, “A woman relative cried… But neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed.” A couple of the children in the photo are outright laughing at what they've seen; a small group in the middle consists of a brunette girl straining, with manic, wide eyes, to get a better look, with another child’s hand pulling at her from behind-- perhaps tugging at her hair, either to get her away to safety, or to vie for a better viewing position himself- and it is probably the latter. A blond boy at the far left mugs for the camera, smiling hugely-- this is his moment to be memorialized. Others just outright stare. The kids remind me that their response and reactions are not yet molded by behavioral expectations, nor are they mature enough, possibly, to fully understand what they've just seen. The two women, though, are in direct contrast to the children-- they act appropriately for witnessing the end of a life-- anguish, down turned eyes, tears. And that's what I find to be one of the most interesting and unique elements of Weegee's work. Weegee himself photographed in a dispassionate way-- but the people he photographed are so emotive and expressive that I find myself standing not in the photographer's shoes, but in the subjects shoes. Weegee doesn't act as a substitute for us as viewers, like many photographers do. Instead, he mirrors our own emotions and tendencies back to us. And for me, the responses captured by Weegee and what they might mean for us, as viewers, are what make his photographs disturbing.
It turns out that the term “disturbing” would end up being a word frequently used to describe Andy Warhol’s new, post-Campbell’s Soup series nearly twenty years later. In 1962, in the same month when Andy Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s paintings in Los Angeles, he met a friend for lunch upon his return to New York. Henry Geldzahler was an art curator and an early supporter of Andy’s work, and though his friend has met with recent stardom in the art world, Geldzahler had a piece of advice to give him. He felt that Warhol’s consumerist images were too trite to do forever, really-- he wanted him to deal with more serious subjects. He reportedly told Warhol, quote “It's enough life, it's time for a little death.” Warhol took this to heart-- in fact, he took Geldzahler’s advice quite literally. As the early 60s progressed, it became clear that his work had taken a turn, because a large segment of his artistic output focused on the theme of death. Ultimately, he would create upwards of 70 works, loosely connected, that addressed mortality directly-- scenes of car crashes, suicides, race riots, electric chairs. But he wasn’t simply painting these scenes-- creating his own ideas of what a crash looks like, for example. No-- he appropriated all of his images from the press-- mostly newspaper images and sometimes their accompanying texts, as well as accessing photographs from police crime scene archives. Just as important as his choice to use the news as his subject matter was the medium he chose to produce many of his Death paintings--the silk screen printing process. Silk screening allowed Warhol to mechanically produce his images over and over and over again-- much like a newspaper or magazine would print thousands of copies of the same issue. To create his Campbell’s Soup works, for example, he had projected photographs of the soup cans onto his canvases, and then painted them, freehand, in an approximation of a stencil. But now, Warhol sought to remove the human element in many ways-- he loved the idea of the machine, and by the silkscreen process, attempted to turn himself and his art into a mechanized system. And at once, Warhol was made anew-- with fresh, darker subject matter, and a whole new method of manufacturing fine art.
One of Warhol’s first Death and Disaster works is a hybrid of this new direction- the novel subject matter of death, but still relying on his old methodology. The painting was inspired by the front page headlines of an issue of the New York Mirror from June 4, 1962. 129 DIE IN JET, the headline screamed in all caps. An Air France plane, flight number 007, had crashed at Orly airport outside of Paris, killing 130 people (the final victim perished from injuries a few days after the crash occurred). There were only two survivors. For Warhol's take, he used his hand-tracing or stenciling method, as he had done with his previous Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola works. He projected a slide of the newsprint onto his canvas, and meticulously recreated the headline and crashed-jet image. But he didn't replicate the front page exactly-- he chose not to present the photo caption or the text of the article surrounding the image. This left the image without context or further information, other than the sensational headline and the gruesome picture. Here, it seems Warhol just wanted to focused on the horror inherent in those two facets of the original news story. Anything else might be seen as distraction.
With works of the Death and Disaster series, such as 129 Die in Jet, a question always arises. By creating images inspired and taken directly from newspapers and tabloids, is Warhol intensifying their impact, with his repetition reminding us over and over again of the darkness of life? The fact of the matter is that most news fades-- newspapers are thrown away, and their headlines are replaced by newer ones proclaiming the latest disaster or scandal. But Warhol’s works make them more permanent, allowing their awful realities to linger far after the event itself has faded. Or was that not Warhol’s intention? Instead, does the easy repetition of these scenes dull us to the terrible images Warhol displays to us? Do we, as viewers, lose our empathy or our ability to be shocked when we see the same terrible scenes over and over again? That certainly seemed to be Warhol’s take on his own work, as he said, quote, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” But for me, the ultimate paradox of Warhol’s Death and Disaster period Is that these works achieve both responses, somehow, at the same time.
Warhol's death paintings are also closely connected to his obsession with fame and celebrity. He combined both interests in some of his most-famous works of all time-- multiple portraits of Marilyn Monroe, based upon a publicity still for her 1953 film, Niagara. He began these images of Monroe shortly after her apparent suicide on August 5, 1962. One of the most well-known, titled Gold Marilyn Monroe and today in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presents viewers with Marilyn’s bright, almost garishly-colored face--pink skin, yellow hair, blue eye shadow, dark lips--and situated squarely in the center of a large field of gold. The first thing I think of when I see this work is that it reminds me of a Byzantine icon-- a revered image of a sainted person, like the Virgin Mary. And Warhol’s love of celebrity certainly tracks with a deification of this movie star. But at the same time, Warhol’s silkscreen process has purposely made it so that Marilyn’s image is somewhat sloppily rendered. It isn’t crisp. Her lipstick almost seems smudged in parts. In essence, she blurs-- and this directly reminds us of the mass-media aspect of the source material. But it also reminds us of two other elements-- first is that the mechanized aspect recalls that the persona of “Marilyn Monroe” was completely fabricated-- a famous tweaking of Norma-Jean Baker into a bombshell creation for mass-media appeal. But the fact that Marilyn in these images isn’t so distinct also might remind us of her death, which was still recent when the image was painted. It’s almost as if she is fading, slipping away, slowly, in front of the viewers’ eyes.
Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn, as well as his images of the newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy from 1963 onward, show his obsession with death via very specific and famous people. But soon after, the references to death in his work circled back around to the head-on, no-holds-barred aspect that had originally been addressed in 129 Die In Jet. He began to create large tableaux featuring images of car accidents, again taken from various tabloids and newspapers. Here, Vehicles crushed violently and corpses limp on sidewalks are reproduced in jarring black screen print and then typically combined with bright, eye-catching color- orange, silver, green, or white- illuminating the starkness of the event that much more. In the four largest of these work, including one titled Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), Warhol took an everyday tragedy and transformed it. Instead of a here today, gone tomorrow print headline, he made the disaster and its corresponding imagery permanent. And even more so, he made it important. These canvases are large-- they have to be, considering that in some cases, Warhol replicated the image so many times-- in the case of Silver Car Crash, it's fifteen repetitions, and then an entire other half of the painting is just an additional canvas painted with the same background color… Just silver, in this case. To some, the combined magnitude of these works brings them to the level of history painting-- that art-historical end-all, be-all of the hierarchy of art production, which we touched on briefly in ArtCurious episode 3. Remember-- history painting equals the highest art. Pastels and water colors… Not so much, according to the 18th and 19th century academics in Europe. With Warhol, his car crashes, then, are elevated to overarching statements about the loss of the American Dream, the futile nature of life, and the overall tragedy of our times. His color-only segments, contrasting with the screen printed repetitive portions, only further this interpretation. On a psychological level, these color blocks end up acting like voids, reminding us of the loss and emptiness that death and destruction bring. The nothingness of death is visualized by… nothing.
Some art historians and critics say that the Death and Disaster series, with the Car Crashes as its pinnacle, are among the most important works that Andy Warhol completed during his lifetime. And bringing these works into the canon and the rarefied realm of history painting is huge. But then again, all of these heavy thoughts about Warhol's Death and Disaster series might be too deep an interpretation, because Warhol himself might have just been coming at it from a purely pragmatic and capitalist point of view. Let's recall that Warhol opted to have his car crashes consist of two panels hung together-- one with the repeated screen print images, one with the void of color. About these works, he said, quote “The two are designed to hang together however the owner wants. . . . It just makes them bigger and mainly makes them cost more." Knowing that his, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) would, in 2013, become the highest-priced Warhol work to ever sell at auction just amplifies this suggestion that much more.
In my personal opinion, I think that we can read the Car Crashes, as well as the other works from the Death and Destruction series, as startling portraits of American popular culture-- both then, and now. How better to describe the top preoccupations of our country than with the dual provocation and fascination of fame and violence? With the car crash paintings, one actually begets the other-- the death that Warhol replicates finds its own kind of fame. And let's not overlook the fact that Warhol is using cars as the vehicle--pardon my pun-- to bring these points across. What’s more American than a car? Warhol’s America is a tabloid writ large, whose grotesqueness is mirrored back to us.
Which brings us back to our old friend, Weegee. Weegee's photographs did the same thing, but 20 to 30 years prior to Warhol taking the mantle and running even further with the subject matter and the allegory. Weegee focused his lens on the violent tragedies of everyday life-- particularly the everyday lives of working and lower-class citizens of New York-- and, somewhat dispassionately-- sensationalized it, capitalized it,... and elevated it. You see, Weegee was not only popular in the truest sense, meaning that his tabloid-fodder images were sought after by the same working folk he photographed, but they were also praised by the fine art community, too-- and this popularity on both fronts occurred during his lifetime, not after the fact. In 1941, New York City’s Photo League held the first exhibition of Weegee’s work, and shortly after that, in 1943, MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, began collecting his works and showing them in a museum for the very first time. By the time Warhol moved to New York, Weegee had already published three successful books of his photographs.
One of the funny things about Weegee and the last couple decades of his life is that his interests seem to have become the inverse of Andy Warhol’s. Two years before Warhol graduated from Carnegie Mellon and moved to the big city, Weegee actually left it-- he instead relocated for a few years to Hollywood, from 1947 to 1952 or 3--and entered a new phase of his career. He seems to have left murder behind, for the most part, and instead began taking photos of celebrities and politicians and heavily distorting them through a variety of different processes. Instead of Naked City, Weegee started a new series and book-- this one titled Naked Hollywood. One of his most famous images from this period is of Marilyn Monroe--here she pops up again!-- where Weegee has transformed an original photo of Marilyn, eyes closed, lips puckered to the camera, and warps it so that Marilyn’s mouth is squeezed small and slightly off-center, and her nose is transformed into a pig-like snout. It’s comedic, but also a bit harsh. There's a darkness there. I think that Andy Warhol probably would have liked it.
I see a lot of commonalities between Weegee and Andy Warhol-- both are artists from immigrant families who created colorful personas for themselves. both very clearly toe the line between high art and popular culture, drawing upon them for their subject matter as well as their medium. Particularly for a certain time in each of their careers, tabloid was king, and each artist used the eternally fascinating subject of death to capture America at a very specific time with differing results for viewer engagement. Weegee’s works do not necessarily garner sympathy for the dead, but we might have a strong emotional reaction for a weary policeman, a homeless man, a laughing dancer. Warhol, though, takes it one step further, and aims to remove our emotions through the mechanization of his printing process, through the soulless repetition of image, and through that void of color.
The commonalities therein lead me to two final questions-- was Andy Warhol aware, then, of Weegee’s work, and was he actively influenced by it, particularly in reference to his own Death and Disaster series? Well, luckily, I have the answer for you on this one-- or at least a partial answer. In an exhibition catalogue of Weegee’s works for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, senior curator Judith Keller wrote that it was documented that Warhol owned a copy of Weeege’s book, Naked City, but that the artist had never really discussed Weegee or his influence publicly or written about Weegee, save one exception-- a diary entry from April 15, 1984-- sixteen years after Weegee’s death in 1968, and only three years before Warhol’s own death in 1987. In it, Warhol wrote, quote “It was a miserable day, rain pouring down. I stayed home and did research, looking at the Weegee pictures. He’s so great. People sleeping and fires and murders and sex and violence. I want to do these kinds of pictures so much. I wish I could ride around with the police.” Judith Keller notes that perhaps Warhol didn’t actually discover Weegee until later in his life. So whether or not he was directly inspired by Weegee for his Death and Destruction works, we may never know. But there is, of course, and interesting coda to this. In 1965, Weegee went to a party on east 47th street. The gathering was at a place referred to as “The Factory,” and the host was, of course, Andy Warhol, who, by now, was world-famous and was just beginning to move away from his Death and Destruction series. Weegee was, like probably most party-goers, starstruck by the artist, who was donning sunglasses and a black leather jacket. Weegee convinced Warhol to pose for a few pictures, some of which Weegee would distort in the same ways that he did with his Hollywood photos-- swirling his features, enlarging those dark, mysterious sunglasses, and repeating Warhol’s own face in a starburst-like pattern, the repetition recalling--probably intentionally-- Warhol’s own modus operandi. But one of the most striking is a rather straightforward photograph-- a Weegee self-portrait, where he stands next to Warhol. Warhol, eyes hidden behind those glasses, looks straight out at the camera, hands clasped, a slight tilt to his head and a definite rock-star vibe. The look is one of cool unapproachability. Weegee, in comparison, is much older, slightly hunched in the shoulder, plaid shirt buttoned all the way up but gaping open at the midpoint over his belly, revealing a white undershirt. A limp stogie hangs from his lips. Weegee doesn't acknowledge the camera. Instead, his gaze is directed upwards and to his left-- perhaps he’s looking at a poster on the nearby wall, but to me, it seems like he's looking instead up to Warhol. The image is a clash of opposites. When he introduced himself to Warhol, Weegee was saddened and surprised, because Warhol reported that he had no idea who Weegee was. Everybody, though, knew Andy. And that was the ugly truth. But, Weegee was used to ugliness. He lived in it, and he championed it. As he once said, quote, “Everybody likes beauty, but there's ugliness. "Don't forget, it's human.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, narrated, and edited by me, Jennifer Dasal, with production assistance from Kaboonki Creative. Learn more about all the ways that Kaboonki can help you with your personal and business creative needs at www.kaboonki.coom-- that's K A B O O N K I dot com.
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