Behind Andy Warhol's Poker Face
By Brett Sokol
By 1965, Kennedy’s career was finally taking off with a slew of high-profile Madison Avenue clients. Describing a cut-throat ad agency milieu that makes Mad Men sound more like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Kennedy says he soon had little time for non-paying side gigs. The Warhol negatives went into a box, quietly filed away.
Flash-forward to 2006: Now living in Miami Beach with his wife, Marie, and curled up on a couch watching the debut of Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol documentary on PBS, he was shocked to see one of his old Warhol photos on the TV screen. Indeed, at three separate times, Burns poignantly lingered over Kennedy’s shot of Warhol gazing through a transparency used to create his iconic Marilyn Monroe paintings. Kennedy was equally surprised to discover that his work was being credited to another photographer—one who had snapped a picture of Kennedy’s photo when it briefly hung in a long-forgotten ’70s Monroe exhibit, done some inventive cropping, and then passed it off as his own. Once the legal dust settled, Kennedy was encouraged to revisit that dusty old box of negatives.
But Kennedy’s vintage photos, now gorgeously displayed as silver gelatin and chromogenic prints (the same formats in which they would have been developed circa 1964), are much more than a nostalgia trip. They offer a view of Warhol at odds with much of the mythology that has grown up around him. Neither an emotionless Svengali nor an empty-headed naïf, the Warhol who comes across foremost in these images is a tireless hustler, one wounded by the indifference of the art world, yet all the more determined to find a way in.
The body language Kennedy captures at a May 1963 Museum of Modern Art opening says it all. Kennedy was there to shoot the painter Robert Indiana, one of several ascendant Pop artists being fêted that night. Indiana is the personification of cool, self-assured and nonchalant as he basks in the limelight amid a who’s who of the New York art scene. Warhol is in the crowd, too—but as someone with his face pressed up against the glass, hungrily looking in. Moreover, the awkwardness with which he schmoozes is downright painful—his hands alternately fluttering at his sides or clasped together nervously in front of him. And forget about the leather jacket and sunglasses, which would become part of his carefully manufactured public persona just a few months later. Here, he’s still wearing a respectable blazer and tie, forcing himself to glad-hand on everyone else’s terms.
In fact, ever the networker, it was Warhol who subsequently cold-called Kennedy: He’d seen a contact sheet of Kennedy’s photos during a visit to Indiana’s studio. So, Warhol asked, how would Kennedy feel about coming over to the Factory to shoot another rising art star?
Again, the resulting photos speak volumes: Warhol openly flirts with Kennedy’s lens, at times seemingly embarrassed by his own desire, displaying a raw vulnerability rarely seen in other portraits of him from the era. But who could blame him? In a photo from that period, Kennedy is shown possessed with a swimmer’s physique and a glowing all-American air, as if he’d just stepped out of a Bruce Weber fashion spread. “Both Andy and I were enchanted by Bill,” confirms actor Taylor Mead in the Full Circle documentary, recalling several Kennedy shoots where he was photographed alongside Warhol. “Bill was so handsome, Andy may have had a thing for him.” Unrequited longings aside, the takeaway here is that for all his reported heartlessness toward the needs—or the self-destructive impulses—of those around him, Warhol himself was hardly the asexual automaton of legend.
Similarly, forget about the legendary partying associated with the Factory. Kennedy’s photos document an artist hunkering down—shooting and splicing reels of films, laboring over silkscreens alongside his assistant, Gerard Malanga, or on the phone, shamelessly drumming up publicity.
“When he suggested I do a book about him,” Kennedy chuckles, recalling his presumed exclusive, “he neglected to inform me that three other photographers were already doing books on him. This guy was a master promoter.” William John Kennedy’s photography is on exhibit at KIWI Arts Group throughout March, 48 NW 29th St., Miami, 305-200-3047. e-mail: email@example.com
photographs courtesy of william john kennedy and kiwi arts group (warhol); jim arbogast (kennedy)