There are just as many celebrity portraits as enigmas in the Berkeley Art Museum’s latest exhibit, “Andy Warhol: Polaroids / MATRIX 240.” O.J. Simpson clutching a football. A young Diane von Furstenberg, wild-eyed and wild-haired. But also lesser-known faces like the mysterious Frau Buch — dark-haired and clutching a black poodle — of whom next to nothing is known. This is for the better, we see, for combined with her enigmatic expression and stark coloring, the allure is the mystery of her identity itself.
Like Frau Buch, many of Warhol’s female subjects seem to bear complexions that are unnaturally white, like that of Japanese Kabuki actors. Warhol would often powder some of his subjects, reportedly to reduce camera glare and the like, but the results have a startling effect. Take Cindy Pritzker, wife of late billionaire and creator of the Hyatt hotel chain, pale white from her face to her bare shoulders. What remains — her blood red lips, icy blue eyes, and silver hair — is almost terrifyingly accentuated. And in von Furstenberg’s photo, you even see some of the flesh tones peeking out through her makeup, as if it were hastily applied, not for aesthetic purposes but for technical ones.
What’s interesting is that, in his descriptions of the subjects, Warhol takes on a seemingly casual tone, as if viewing them from a purely aesthetic stance, noting the shape of their eyes or the curve of their face. Of prima ballerina Heather Watts, Warhol observed, “Her eyes are really beautiful. They’re like gorgeous movie-star eyes, the kind with the dark circles around the blue.” On baseball star Tom Seaver: “Athletes really do have the fat in the right places and they’re young in the right places, too.”
However, Warhol’s shots betray him. The polaroids capture so much more than the face, the pose. They almost seem candid, despite the fact that all of these are staged pictures, often with the subject smiling directly into the lens. How does he achieve this liveliness, this slice-of-life thing that he does so well?
Maybe it’s something to do with the subjects themselves, who all exude character and charisma through their impenetrable eyes and pursed lips. These are people who have lived full lives, and you can see it in their faces. Like television producer, Philip Rosenthal, who appears in a series of four polaroids, each of him holding a cigar and with various versions of a bemused expression on his face. His gaze is straightforward, but with a hint of a smile on his lips, as if he’s merely humoring us with his larger-than-life presence.
With Warhol, though, you know it’s his craft and skill that bring out these personas, that capture them in all their glory and enigma. All of these shots have the subjects sitting close to the frame, in a way that’s both intimate and invasive. In one photograph, arts benefactress Sondra Gilman is seen looking slightly away from the camera, her shoulders angled away as well, with a radiant smile on her face that appears so candid, despite the fact that we know that it’s not.
There’s something a bit off about all of these images: the angle, the eyes that aren’t quite meeting your gaze, the posture or expression a bit askew. They appear as if the subjects were caught in a moment. Most photographs from the past look old, dated, stuck in history. But in these polaroids, the sheen of skin is so clear, so present, that the subjects appear encapsulated in time, forever young.
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