Sex Scenes: What Makes A Gay Icon?

A new gallery show at Lévy Gorvy delves into Andy Warhol's relationships with the women he immortalized in art.

by Rachel Rabbit White
May 24 2019, 1:39pm

When discussing Andy Warhol and his relationship to women, it’s impossible not to think about Valerie Solanas, feminist and author of the radical SCUM manifesto, who shot Warhol in June 1968. The infamous pop artist fell to the ground and was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead before being resurrected with an emergency surgery. Solanas was sentenced to three years in prison while Warhol spent two months in the hospital. He would never fully recover, wearing a surgical corset for the rest of his life.

Solanas would go onto explain that she felt Warhol “controlled” her life. Certainly many hanging around the factory seemed to feel that way—Edie Sedgwick being the most famous case. For example, when Warhol was hospitalized for those two months he received few visits from his “superstars”—but a lot of requests for money owed to them. Warhol was surrounded by people, notes his biographer Wayne Koestenbaum, yet didn’t appear to have many true friendships. Still, he idolized the women in his life, whether they were friends or pop icons: Marilyn, Jackie, Edie, actively transforming them into icons of a religious type through a series of meticulous operations.

The New York art gallery Lévy Gorvy is now hosting an exhibit called Warhol Women (open until June 16th) to illustrate this fraught and famous relationship of the artist to the feminine and elucidate the peculiar methods through which Andy would canonize these women.

On display is Warhol’s 40 Jackies (1964) a repeated series of eight pictures taken at different moments during that fateful day in November of 1963 when John F. Kennedy died. All the images, Lévy Gorvy co-founder Brett Gorvy told GARAGE, are of the same size as the ones you can find in Catholic churches, and together they tell a story that is immediately readable in the same way that painting of the steps of the via crucis were immediately readable to any believer visiting a cathedral. (For the record, Warhol never met Jackie or Marilyn. He began painting his garish neon serials of the latter star right after she died.)

Serialization is arguably the most famous of Warhol’s techniques in creating icons. It is often discussed as Andy’s commentary on the media, his understanding of images newly proliferating through mass media. His triple Mona Lisa (in the show) is both based on a commercially reproduced postcard but also imitates the cover of a magazine honoring the painting’s first visit to the United States (brought to the Met by—who else?—Jackie.)

But the organization and repetition of images through a process is how these images also achieve a sort of hieratic aura. David Salle comments on that Warhol is at his best “when you can feel him reaching out for the grandeur and clear-eyed sorrow of classical art.

In antiquity the “iconographer” (someone who painted the religious icons, which needed to be always immediately recognizable as Christ, or Mary, or the archangel Gabriel) would refer to a set of unchangeable rules to guarantee the meaning of their icon, to assure immediate recognizability of not only the image but the scene, no matter when or by who the icon was seen.

For Warhol, recognizability was guaranteed mechanically by the system of media, and his challenge instead was to find a mechanism that would permit him to express a unique expressive feeling. As Gorvy notes, Warhol had an incredible talent as a designer of impactful images. In the silk screen, a process that involves pressing paint on a canvas through a squeegee, Warhol would find the method to give a gravitas and heft to his paintings. The variation in pressure that the artist could apply to the squeegee made it so that each of the prints would have an individual expressive aura while retaining their iconic reproductive style.

Talking about the incredible staying power of Warhol’s images, Gorvy remarked on how his thirteen-year-old daughter has never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie but was aware of her image because of the Warhol print. And I found myself wondering what Marilyn meant to his daughter’s generation; is this an understanding of the meaning of Marilyn or is she now seen as an artifact of the Factory?

So often when we discuss what makes a gay icon it’s a sense of glamour, ostentatiousness, a turbulent private life, a sense of strength through adversity—and often a sense of tragedy. Of course, these are themes that square with the mass oppression in the life of gay people. Warhol was deep in the gay male culture of the 1950’s and Marilyn was the tragic queen, 36 when she died, famous for being a “sex symbol” for playing the “dumb blonde”, and finally for being the bombshell that married Arthur Miller, the sex goddess who also thought and read, who had tumultuous relationships, who used drugs. In Warhol’s image made over and over and over she transcends into something else entirely.

An icon is an image codified to transfer a precise meaning, and in case of Warhol’s Marilyn, finished just a month after her death, it was a truly tragic image. It is an image that tries to unite both an idea of beauty, and a salvation in how glamour that goes beyond death, and the lack that it opens in the world.

Solanas comments sharply of the male artist: “Despising his highly inadequate self, overcome with intense anxiety and a deep profound loneliness when by his empty self [he is] desperate to attach to any female in dim hopes of completing himself, in the mystical belief that by touching gold he'll turn to gold.”

Gorvy too comments that Warhol considered himself ugly and repulsive (one wonders if he found respite when he posed in drag in the 80s for Christopher Makos.) But in some sense, Warhol is always playing with drag through avatars, whether it’s through the superstars of the Factory or in the portraits of the ‘80s, painting the downtown It-girls, drag queens and demi-celebs of Studio 54. And like good fun drag, Warhol plays on the superficial, daring you to take his works merely at face value.

Andy Warhol
Jackie Kennedy