Andy Warhol got the glamour bug early. Around the age of 10 – this would have been in 1938 – he started, with help from older brother Paul, to send requests to celebrities of whatever ilk for their autographed pictures. Shirley Temple, Fredric March, Mae West and Harry James were among the many who duly responded; young Andrew would then paste these portraits in his hefty photo albums.
Andy also liked to go to the pictures, sometimes accompanied by his mother, Julia, Paul and other brother John. Sometimes Julia would buy him issues of movie magazines such as Photoplay. Or paper-doll cut-out books licensed by stars such as Claudette Colbert. Or Big Little Book adaptations of movies, such as The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper.
Sickly for much of his blotchy-faced childhood, he was encouraged at the age of 6 to take up drawing, often preparing studies of screen stars: A favourite seems to have been Hedy Lamarr, "the world's most beautiful woman," featured in a magazine advertisement for Maybelline eyeshadow. He slept with a Charlie McCarthy doll.
The irony, of course, is that by the time he died, at 58 in 1987, Andy Warhol was a celebrity himself. Bigger than Hedy Lamarr. Bigger than Fredric March. Heck, he even co-starred, with Milton Berle and another great Andy (Griffith), in a 1985 episode of TV's The Love Boat.
Yet, amazingly, even as he became a familiar name, even as his Brillo boxes and silkscreens found their way into the houses of the Hollywood holy, Warhol never seemed to lose his love (with all its complications) for the "merely" glamorous and the ephemera that were its manifestations. A hoarder informed by the poverty of a Depression-era youth, a Catholic – the Pope of Pop! – with a mania for the relics and iconography of the "saints," he accumulated wildly and widely. So much so that in the spring of 1988, it took Sotheby's three consecutive weeks to auction tens of thousands of lots from the Warhol estate. Among the offerings: a stuffed bobcat; more than 175 ceramic cookie jars; art by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp; and a Judy Jetson plastic wristwatch.
And there's plenty more out there still, much of it held, in fact, by the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist's hometown of Pittsburgh. The museum has lent hundreds of artifacts to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for an exhibition to accompany Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen, a lengthy retrospective of Warhol films that opened last weekend.
It's a clever showcase of surfacey attractions. The folks at TIFF and the Warhol have turned the HSBC Gallery on the Lightbox's main floor into a labyrinth of imagery, things and sound, stuffing it with stuff quite literally to the rafters. Large, silvery, slightly warped mirrors, their edges flush to the floor, and the vertical supports simultaneously bring the viewer into the show and disorient him while seeming to double the size of what's on offer. Sometimes it's hard to determine just where mere reality ends and mirror reality begins. Who's that person walking toward you? Why, holy Narcissus, it's you!
Warhol was much concerned with "doubling" in his life and art. He was fascinated with twins, taking great pleasure, for instance, in knowing that one of his lovers, Jed Johnson, had an identical brother, Jay. In 1981, the King of Camp "wigged out" most queenly, going deeply "drag" for a series of photographs by Christopher Makos. As for the art, take a look at Double Elvis (1963), Two Colored Cows (1980), Liza Minnelli (1978), Marilyn Monroe's Lips (1962), Troy Donahue (1962), Before and After 3 (1962) and all the other multiplications, repetitions and exercises in seriality that so singularly say "Warhol."
Moreover, what was The Factory, with its stable of "superstars" such as Viva and Edie, Ondine and Mario, but a sort of parallel to, and low-rent parody of, the Hollywood studio system that so brightened Warhol's benighted childhood? It was a world in which a gay man/mama's boy could function as all-accepting den mother.
Warhol's over-quoted statement that "everyone in the future will be famous for 15 minutes" was at heart a recognition of the power of mass media and popular culture to weirdly democratize the manufacture of glamour and celebrity. It's an ethos that informs much of the TIFF exhibition. Yes, there are sections devoted to Warhol's collection of Liz Taylor, Kim Novak, Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo and (especially) Marilyn Monroe photographs (including the 1953 source image, a still from the movie Niagara, that Warhol used for his famous 50 Marilyn works of the early sixties).
But the exhibition accords almost as much attention to his Factory associates. In fact, the five screens suspended from the ceiling throughout the HSBC aren't playing loops of scenes from the artist's favourite Hollywood films, but rather excerpts from from such Warhol classics as Chelsea Girls and Taylor Mead's Ass. Meanwhile, the posters for Hollywood films that cover much of the upper portion of the gallery's south wall seamlessly give way on the west to posters for Warhol productions such as Lonesome Cowboys, My Hustler and Trash.
Viewers looking for heaps of Warhol's own glamour-themed art are going to be disappointed. There is some – a 1983 triptych of screen prints of Ingrid Bergman, for example; a Liza Minnelli screen print from 1978; a wool tapestry, owned by a Toronto collector, with Marilyn's face on it; a Cocteau-inspired drawing in profile titled James Dean – Dead (1956) – but nothing as significant as, say, Blue Liz as Cleopatra (1963) or Red Elvis (1962). Really, this is an exhibition about sensibility. So if pondering a dress worn by Jean Harlow is your thing or a pair of Clark Gable's shoes or Jon Wickwire's huge, hunky painting of Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller, well, TIFF Bell Lightbox is the place.
The Lightbox also has set aside a room to create a loose facsimile of the 47th Street Silver Factory, which Warhol and crew occupied in 1964. Here you'll find a big casting couch, chairs, fans, a 16-mm projector, a sixties-style console TV and pairs of suspended monitors showing 40 or so samples of the hundreds of famous three-minute screen tests Warhol shot from 1964 to 1966. Among the subjects: Susan Sontag, Baby Jane Holzer and a guy named Victor. Or was that Dennis Hopper?
Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen is at the TIFF Bell Lilghtbox in Toronto through Jan. 24 (tiff.net/warhol).