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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Visual Arts

From his films to who he socialised with, being gay infiltrated every aspect of Warhol’s life. Yet the heteronormative hegemony of the art world frequently suppresses this in their ‘know-all’ history on the prince of modernism.Visual Arts

Warhol was not afraid of being gay. His decision to be out, however, was at times detrimental to his career. Warhol’s insistent depiction of the camp lifestyles of his ‘beautiful boys’ led to repetitive censoring throughout his career, even after the passing of the 1950s, commonly referred to as the most homophobic of American decades. Andy’s desire to have a show at the Tanager Cooperative Gallery in NYC in the late ‘50s was immediately shut down due to the unsavoury nature of his submission of drawings which mostly depicted young homosexual couples embracing. What is most intriguing about this episode is the revision of board member Philip Pearlman’s account of the Tanager Affair in his historical account. Initially, Pearlman is on record as saying that: “He (Warhol) submitted a group of boys kissing boys which other board members hated and refused to show. He felt hurt and didn’t understand.” This story of the hurtful refusal of Warhol’s homoerotic drawings is later revised by Pearlman in a 1987 interview in which he eradicates all mention of homophobia in this encounter by simply stating that: “Andy wanted to show there…, but the other members weren’t in favour of showing his work.” This rewrite of queer history illustrates how Warhol’s homosexuality has been snuffed out by critics to pave the way for the dissemination of more socially acceptable narratives.

The issue of censorship is even more prevalent in the unveiling of his colossal work Thirteen Most Wanted Men at the 1964 World Fair in New York. Warhol was one of ten artists, also including Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, who were commissioned to present pieces for the major event. The 20-feet-high canvas on to which 13 mugshots of 1962’s most wanted criminals in New York had be screen-printed was quickly deemed objectionable by government officials who immediately called for its removal. Within two days of its hanging, Warhol’s seemingly controversial piece had been painted over with aluminium house paint to reveal a canvas whose originally meaning and context had been silenced. The official opposition to the work was stated at the time as being that the portrayal of predominantly Italian criminals would be hurtful to the incumbent mayor’s chances of securing the votes of this demographic. However, revisionist historians such as Meyer have been critical of this. Meyer, in his book Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, presents the analysis that Warhol’s canvas may have been rejected for its underlying homosexual themes, proving that even as a household name, Warhol was still subject to discrimination. The ‘wanted’,  Meyer offers, may refer to the sexual desirability of the men depicted, some of whom have been turned to face each other. Whether this was Warhol’s intention or not, the panicked response that lead to the destruction of the work explicitly indicates the fear organisers experienced at the potential of a queer-themed work dominating the exhibition.

It is well documented that Andy used film to create a sociological analysis of queer society. Blowjob is a perfect example of this approach.  A commentary on the anonymity of casual sex, the 35-minute-long piece focusses solely on the ecstatic reactions of a man supposedly receiving oral sex from a person off-camera. Filming the video in this manner creates an ambiguous scenario which perplexes viewers, leaving them unsure if the scene was simulated or not. Ambiguity and the elusiveness of meaning is a common theme throughout the artist’s work. Using “a good-looking kid that happened to be hanging around the Factory that day”, a film like Blowjob is purely contextual; relying on the participation of the sexually liberal, carefree members of the Factory to execute Warhol’s artistic vision. While the sexual-health risk of unprotected oral sex is relatively low (for both partners), it can be argued that by being filmed in 1964, Blowjob represents the carefree attitude towards casual sex of the New York underground gay scene before their worlds would be changed forever by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Warhol was the stereotypical homosexual of the 1960s: sexually obsessed, a creative genius, and a man simultaneously excluded and included by society. But to what end? To Warhol, art was life and life was art. The life of Andy Warhol was a performance art piece. The fewer answers he gave in interviews and the more he cultivated the alluring enigma of the artist ‘Andy Warhol’, the further he distanced society away from the man behind the dark sunglasses. The shy Ruthenian Catholic boy whose sketches were too camp for New York’s artistic elite. The man who would become the leader of the Brotherhood of Faggots.

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