What was social media before social media?

Decades before the dawn of Facebook, Friendster, or even email, an artist from an Eastern European immigrant family (“Warhola”) learned to draw during a childhood illness, attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology, moved to New York, and became a leader in the pop art movement.

Along the way, this artist conceived a process – available to celebrities and wealthy socialites  – for instantaneous portrait production, and Snapchat-level modification, but with a single, controlling voice: Warhol.

“Andy Warhol: Prints, Polaroids, and Photographs from the Collection,” at UNC Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, is a telling display of what social media takes inspiration from today.

“He was way ahead of the curve with the instant gratification of social media,” says Curator of Collections Elaine Gustafson. “He knew that people wanted to see themselves, and this kind of daily documentation that we now have on Facebook.”

Today, we see and publish our photos as we are taking them, but at Warhol’s time, the Polaroid camera was the only way to see your photograph right then and there.

Polaroid of Truman Capote

“Truman Capote,” after August 1977

Each patron of Warhol’s sat for a series of Polaroid photos, and eighteen of those sessions are currently on display at WAM. Among them are shots of writer Truman Capote, musician Carly Simon and premier fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick. Warhol had the subjects pose in a number of different ways, and then, with their input, he selected photos to make prints of, in his classic 60’s era advertising-style with off-kilter, aggressive colors.

Warhol was not accepted by the established art community at that time, but he created his own scene, notably at The Factory, his Manhattan studio and event space. He became a friend of the most famous people of any given time Lou Reed, Jackie O., David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and the list goes on and on – many who were celebrities or near-celebrities, artists and business people.

“He had a lot of people in his life who were not conventional, and he was very supportive of them,” says Gustafson. It wasn’t really until his death that he became a hot commodity in the art world. He was on the fringes.”

Eventually, Warhol’s graphic design style and his penchant for cultural documentation made him a household name, and his work, including single pieces that have sold for more than $100 million, was enormously influential on contemporary art and anticipated – or even inspired – social media the way we now experience it. He was also a diarist of objects.

“He would collect something from his life every day,” notes Gustafson. “Tickets for a movie, or something he found on the ground, and he’d put them in a box and archive them.” Today, you find snapshots of such objects continuously rolling through social media feeds.

colorful print of cut-outs

“Hans Christian Anderson,” 1987, from “Hans Christian Anderson Series”

“Andy Warhol: Prints, Polaroids, and Photographs from the Collection,” also includes a screen print of a paper cut-out by fairy tale author Hans Christian Anderson, who carried his art supplies around and made cut-outs to entertain children.

Another stand-out piece in the collection is a print based on a Romanian castle that was the inspiration for Disneyland’s “Sleeping Beauty” castle.

a castle print

“Neuschwanstein,” 1987, created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bavarian Reinsurance Company

 

“Everything from fairy tales to celebrities and monarchs to industry,” says Gustafson.

Warhol’s art and his artifacts were not just about his own life, but a cultural record of the times. The Weatherspoon exhibition is a step back into our shared history at a point where art met commerce, celebrity culture, and social currency, launching us to where we find ourselves  – and 3,000 of our closest friends – today.

The exhibition is open through Feb. 3.  All exhibitions at the Weatherspoon Art Museum are free and open to the public.

See the website for hours and more information.

 

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Images courtesy of the Weatherspoon Art Museum