Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 7, 2004
David McCabe and David Dalton A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol: Photographs by David McCabe London: Phaidon, 2003. 240 pp.; 400 b/w ills. Cloth (9780714843223)
Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, Nashville, Tenn., September 2–October 14, 2004
David McCabe. At the Factory, New York City, March 1965, 1965. Silver-gelatin print. Courtesy David McCabe Photography, New York.

In early 1964, shortly after acquiring the studio space at 231 East Forty-Seventh Street in New York that would become known as the Factory, Pop artist Andy Warhol commissioned British fashion photographer David McCabe to document his life for one year. Although the project resulted in over 2,500 photographs, none of the images were used by Warhol, nor were any published until last year’s release of McCabe’s book, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol (London: Phaidon Press, 2003). The book contains 450 of the shots arranged in chronological order, with captions and short stories by David Dalton, one of Warhol’s assistants at the time. The companion exhibition at Vanderbilt University’s Fine Arts Gallery includes forty-eight silver-gelatin prints, selected by McCabe from the images in his book, accompanied by descriptive titles and a few examples of Dalton’s anecdotes.

The exhibition provides a behind-the-scenes view of participants in the New York underground who gathered in and around the Factory: socialite misfits Edie Sedgwick and Baby Jane Holzer, Warhol’s assistants Gerard Malanga, Chuck Wein, and Billy Name, and well-known art-world figures Leo Castelli, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, Philip Johnson, and Salvador Dalí. In addition to the party scenes and encounters with celebrities, including Mick Jagger and Rudolph Nureyev, the selection at Vanderbilt includes fourteen images showing Warhol and Malanga working on a silk-screen flower painting.

Although McCabe was the photographer, the year-long project is properly understood as a Warhol production. The idea of documenting his life and the many events associated with the Factory was in keeping with Warhol’s virtual obsession with capturing all aspects of his life for storage: taking Polaroids at parties, tape-recording hundreds of hours of telephone conversations, and saving items that passed through his hands in “time capsules.” In fact, if read as an exhibition of photography, A Year in the Life includes only a few shots that would be considered outstanding or even memorable beyond their value as documents of Warhol or the Factory scene in general. The most stunning of these is the opening shot (also used for the gallery’s limited-edition poster) of Warhol in bed, seen through a circular window at Philip Johnson’s guesthouse in Connecticut. Other interesting photographs seem to play with ideas present in Warhol’s own work, such as serial repetition and a fascination with consumer products (like the one showing Warhol in the closet of Jacques Kaplan’s apartment with his face repeated four times in a mirror, or quotidian scenes of Warhol drinking coffee or exiting a pharmacy surrounded by advertisements and brand logos), but such similarities are most likely coincidental.

The fact that McCabe was commissioned to “document” Warhol’s life would excuse the blandness of many of the shots, given the desire to capture Warhol in the presence of celebrities or during a particular moment at a party, but the photographer’s approach was inconsistent and often disruptive to any such reading of the works. For example, several shots were created using a fisheye lens, including scenes of Warhol in the bathroom and the elevator at the Factory, and the resulting images display an affectation often associated with student work. In other instances, however, McCabe’s chosen viewpoint accentuates his subjects, most notably the two images with the Empire State Building in the background (which show Warhol with Marisol and Sedgwick, respectively). The building itself stands as both an icon (or “celebrity”) of New York and the “star” of Warhol’s 1964 silent film Empire, an eight-hour-long film of the structure shot with a stationary camera from the forty-fourth floor of the Time-Life building. In the high-angle shot with Sedgwick, Warhol and his companion reach flamboyantly into the sky, nearly touching the spire of the building to their left. In another photograph, shot from below, McCabe captures Warhol wearing an Indian headdress in a St. Regis hotel room as he is overwhelmed by fellow artist and impresario Dalí, who looms with a devilish expression above the camera. This image was accompanied by a wall-panel text describing how Dalí introduced a feral cat into the room and delighted at its violent antics.

Despite the uneven quality of the images as photographs, the exhibition provides a valuable glimpse into the New York art world of the 1960s, the Factory scene, and Warhol just before he became “Andy Warhol.” Self-conscious images of Warhol and assistants as “artists” or “superstars” are combined with shots of Warhol and Malanga in the studio working on paintings, as well as images of Warhol attempting to escape momentarily the nonstop commotion that he had purposely cultivated at the Factory.

In addition to the forty-eight photographs, the gallery presented a lecture by McCabe, a showing of the 2002 documentary Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and a rare opportunity to view Warhol’s 1966 film The Chelsea Girls in its original dual-projector format. The twelve unedited reels of 16-mm film (six reels for each side) were shown in succession, with the left side starting approximately five minutes after the right side. The films, in black-and-white and color, featured many of the Factory regulars (Nico, Ondine, Brigid Polk, Ingrid Superstar, International Velvet, Mary Woronov), and the sound of the sometimes-scripted, sometimes-improvised dialogue shifted back and forth between the projectors. The screening at Vanderbilt, in the lecture room above the gallery, was standing room only. The crowd was a mix of academics, Warhol aficionados, and decidedly hip students who all wandered in and out during the 210-minute film, creating a suitably irreverent and Factorylike atmosphere for the event. (A recording of Lou Reed singing “Pale Blue Eyes” was even heard in the background prior to the show.) Together, the exhibition of photographs and the film screenings succeeded in giving the Nashville-area audience a visual journey to the mid-1960s, as directed by Andy Warhol.

Wendy Koenig
Assistant Professor of Art History, Art Department, Middle Tennessee State University