Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Masterpiece of the Week: Andy Warhol’s Polaroid, a Self-Portrait for the Facebook Age

Self-Portrait / Andy Warhol

Self-Portrait, Andy Warhol, 1979. Polaroid Polacolor print, 32 1/4 x 22 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 98.XM.5.1. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Andy Warhol was asked by the Polaroid Corporation in 1979 to create a series of works promoting its new product—a giant 800-pound camera that produced instant large-scale color photographs almost three feet tall and two feet wide. Warhol produced ten final images, four of them self-portraits, including the one shown here, which is featured in the exhibition Images of the Artist and is the focus of this week’s Masterpiece of the Week tours.

In Warhol’s work self-portraits are a predominant theme, a strange fact for someone who was reputed to have hated his looks, finding himself to be grotesque and constantly griping about his weight and skin.

The contradiction between the picture and its purported content puzzles me: it’s a self-portrait—an image meant to convey personality and identity—and yet, no Warhol self-portrait actually conveys who he really was.

Taking Warhol’s self-portraits together, however, we can begin to piece together some idea of what he was trying to say about himself, or at least parts of himself. There is the fascinating series of self-portraits in drag costume, glamorized with full hair and makeup. Many of his self-portraits have him grimacing or making uncomfortable faces—he even captured himself blowing his nose with a tissue in a couple of bumbling shots.

In a few images, he represents himself with a camera. There are a few with a menacing-looking skull hovering near him. In others, he dons one of his many wigs. Looking at the range of these photographs, we have a better idea of who he was: a sometimes awkward, flamboyant artist with a propensity for both the macabre and mundane, the droll and dramatic.

Perhaps the saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words” no longer holds true?

Polaroid portrait of Jennifer S. Li

Polaroid portrait of me by Katherine Ahn

Consider this Polaroid that my friend took of me. I’m holding a little bunny toy, puckering my lips and looking away from the camera, affecting a cutesy look—is this who I am? Not really; maybe in that moment; maybe a little part of me. But certainly this portrait doesn’t speak to all of me.

Perhaps, beginning with Warhol and now even more so today in the age of Facebook, personal blogs, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram and more, the inverse of the old adage is really true: a thousand pictures are required to convey our true, multi-faceted identities.

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  1. William
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    At nearly two feet by two feet in size, experiencing this photograph in the flesh is phenomenal. Warhol, like much of his art, IS truly larger-than-life here — “warts and all.”
    One has to wonder if it was instant gratification for him when seeing this developed immediately following the snap of the shutter. The almost rawness of his flesh appears to declare just how unglamorously he approached this luxurious media.
    The effect of the photograph to me seems to capture a rather natural moment in front of the camera, if not a contemplative one.
    His celebrity really allowed him to experiment and to experience himself in truly remarkable ways. What fun!

  2. Jennifer S. Li
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    The huge size of this Polaroid photo is definitely something worth experiencing in person. I sheepishly admit I love having my photo taken, but the huge size of this format is definitely intimidating. It took a certain kind of confidence to capture himself in this way–again, yet another contradiction to his purported shyness and self-consciousness. Thanks for your thoughts, William!

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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.


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