Sondra Gilman and the Warhol Polaroids

Kevin Killian


The very great kindness (and business savvy) of the Warhol Foundation’s Photographic Legacy Program has blown Warhol’s Polaroids far across the land. BAM/PFA is one of fifty U.S. museums to benefit from the Foundation’s 2008 donation of representative samples of Warhol’s photo work—actually, not just the Polaroids but prints of other cameras he used on occasion.

Thus BAM/PFA now has a few dozen original Warhols, more than any other area museum, even in the face of Don Fisher’s gift to SFMOMA! Well, some will sneer, these prints and Polaroids are only the detritus of a great career, but those of us who love this work argue just the opposite. There are nine photos of Sondra Gilman at BAM/PFA, and I’ve looked at these enough to know a corpus shining with something very much like divine light.

Warhol specialized in beauty, but we respond to his portraits of Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis, or Liz not only for their bow to glamour, but for their uncanny apposition to death. Well, maybe there’s no glamour without death’s shadow to set it off, but if so no one knew that, and exhibited it, better than Andy Warhol. At first when the images of Sondra Gilman leaked, my thoughts were, “Who’s she?” and then something of the real-life Gilman’s vivacity and high spirits must have come across, lifting off the image like emanations from a long-closed crypt. Even though she herself is very much alive and vigorous and continuing many cultural missions in New York, what comes to is, of course, a face from the past, when husband #1—Charles (“Chris”) Gilman Jr. of the Gilman Paper Company—was still alive, when she and Charles appeared in Warhol’s Diaries, not altogether flatteringly. (“Chris” died, tragically young, in 1982.)

History will see Sondra Gilman first as a patron and collector of Warhol’s (and other Pop artists like Rauschenberg and Johns), but she was also a smart curator with an eye for the photographic image. An important figure at the Whitney, she is now a trustee and its photo gallery is named after her, as well as the curatorship for photography there. The post Elizabeth Sussman holds now is the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Naming rights keep lengthening every narrative, like this one, so let’s head right into the paradox, as crack TV news teams sent their helicopters right into the mouth of Eyjafjallajökull, knowing that’s where we wanted to be and see.

As Warhol’s work grew less and less political—or should I say “personal” in the 1970s, and perhaps more generally after the Valerie Solanas attack, only a very few onlookers could keep up with his vision. To many his passion for Polaroids was about celebrity first, documentation second, and as a distant third, maybe a third thing they hadn’t figured out yet, but it was something assuredly banal. Sondra is amazing in this white and red sundress or romper suit that must have been influenced by the 20th Century Fox Betty Grable resort movies of the mid-1940s. She’s like a bowl of strawberries and cream, with ruffles. BAM/PFA owns two distinct sets of Polaroid poses of Sondra Gilman, and in the other she’s wearing an OK blue-ish-green dress, nothing as “camp” as this outfit. Studies for Warhol’s eventual painting of her? Online there’s a great trek through her apartment in Manhattan, with a staggering number of brightly colored rooms, and in one photo you can see the actual product, “A Portrait of Sondra Gilman.” Looks just like the dress in this Polaroid, only the colors have gone all crazy: the red cherries remain, but they’re now mere relief on a flouncy scrim of, I don’t know, would you call that tortoiseshell green? Was it to make Sondra look more scientific, and less like a contestant on Hee Haw?

I look back and forth between the two dresses; one is uber-Halston style, tied on one shoulder, the other shoulder bare, in the mode of his high disco style of the 1977 era. The Studio 54 years, right? While the cute, girlish cherry vanilla outfit might have been worn by playgirls in Miami in 1943. I’m thinking that in some ways Warhol anticipated the style breakthroughs Bobbie Mannix made in the film musical Xanadu (1980). Xanadu lovers will recall the weird, vertiginous leaps its costumes made, between the 40s and the 70s (and the future). The famous closing number gives us Olivia Newton John morphing between slinky 70s Halston wear and the milkmaid outfits they used to give Carole Landis in wartime RKO spectacles. Well, Xanadu’s plot is all about Gene Kelly thinking that Olivia—who is from the future—and also from the past of ancient Greece—looks rather like the girl he lost back in the 1940s; in one memorable number dancers from a disco begin to intersect with dancers from a 1940s zoot-suited bebop dancehall, and the different songs they are miming to (one by a rock band, one by a big band) begin to click together, like clockwork, on the soundtrack. And, in a nod to Warhol’s notorious color schemes, every outfit in Xanadu gets repeated eight more times, in a range of wrong colors. We sometimes forget that the polarization effects Warhol employed early on had as much to do with contemporary audience’s hesitancy toward his painting as did the subject matter itself: Marilyn, okay, maybe, but gold Marilyn? Red Liz? Green and purple Campbell’s soup?

(A friend suggests that I haven’t thought this out thoroughly and that it should be said, right away, that the garish color decisions of Warhol’s Factory days gave rise to a horror-filled fascination because they announced, as surely as the “green carnation” to the literary and art worlds of the 1890s in France and England, a homosexual presence on the verge of coming out. “The place/ Where nobody dared to do/ The love that we came to know/ They call it Xanadu.”)