Warhol's life on the street

He photographed the biggest stars of his age, but an exhibition of previously unseen work reveals how the artist also appreciated the drama of everyday life
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The Independent Culture

In the last two decades of his life, Andy Warhol became synonymous with the cult of celebrity. His New York studio, Factory, and its bohemian retinue of Hollywood stars, intellectuals and aristocrats which had been at the heart of the city's underground arts scene in the 1960s burst on to the mainstream; meanwhile, Warhol's silkscreens of the age's biggest stars were cementing his reputation as the founding father of Pop Art.

But alongside his obsessive documentation of the cult of Hollywood stardom, Warhol never ceased to be fascinated by its very opposite. A batch of newly discovered snapshots, taken by the artist between 1976 and 1987 during the last years of his life, with the camera that he always kept with him, reveal his enduring fascination with the anonymous and apparently mundane aspects of everyday life.

From 18 January, the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London will put 200 of the previously unseen images on public display in the exhibition Andy Warhol: Portraits and Landscapes. The display coincides with the 21st anniversary of the artist's death, in what would have been his 80th year.

Warhol was famously addicted to taking photographs with the eye of an amateur, according to critics. But what is more remarkable is the total absence of the celebrity and glitz that appeared in the work he was doing concurrently in his studio. Many snapshots focus on abandoned objects on the street, such as bins and rubbish bags; others feature shop signs advertising the latest sale or Tarot card readings; and still others cast their gaze on passers-by who are lost in their own thoughts or pedestrian pursuits.

While Warhol presented celebrity life with an ironic twist, he appears to have attempted to do the opposite with these everyday images. Commonplace objects, including dog food, toilets, chairs, teacups, mannequins and aeroplanes, are presented as meaningful, the minutiae of street life depicted in all its inherent tragedy, humour and drama. According to the writer Susan Sontag, these photographs were a celebration of the ordinary, aiming to "democratise all experiences by translating them into images".

Some of the snapshots show the flip side of consumerism, which he presented in his neat, shiny repetitive images of Campbell's Soup and Brillo pads, appearing to hint at the consequences of market forces on America's underclass. One snapshot shows sellers at a grubby flea market looking bored as they wait for shoppers. Others show stacks of electrical goods piled outside store windows to woo shoppers; further images show the haunted faces of New York's homeless community.

Some photographs appear almost as if Warhol is viewing his city from a cold-eyed tourist's perspective. There is a rooftop snapshot of New York's skyscrapers, another of the Statue of Liberty overcast by clouds, taken as if Warhol were aboard the ferry to Staten Island, with deckchairs and a railing caught within the frame.

The emergence of these pictures has served to remind Warhol aficionados of his primary role as a photographer rather than a painter. Steven Bluttal, who is curating the exhibition, says that they provide a remarkable insight into Warhol's photographic practice: "Photographs were used as the source material for almost all of his paintings and prints, and the composition of these snapshots reveal his artistic training. We can also see that they were more graphically inspired, such as a shot with a pair of ballet shoes taken from a stairwell, which have a beautiful linear quality, taken as Warhol is walking up or down the stairs. He took his camera everywhere and these snapshots are very different from his Polaroids, which are generally studies of celebrity portraits."

To some, the onslaught of abandoned, random objects also provides an insight into Warhol's disengaged, emotionally aloof state of mind. Images of empty chairs stacked outside a shop, or a shabby dustbin on a street corner, appear forlorn, as if Warhol's eye tended to rest on objects bereft of love and human contact.



Andy Warhol: Portraits and Landscapes, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1 (020-7409 3344), 18 January to 29 February

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