Warhol at the Whitney - the Gold Room

Authored by Adrian Ormsby

Moving out of the Flower and Soup Can rooms, replete with bold, bright colour and super-size

images, you turn a very tight corner to a dimly lit room with dozens of smaller works from

Warhol’s early work of the 50’s, when he was Candy Andy, the most sought after ad-man in the

Big Apple.

Unlike the Brillo Boxes just meters away, which hardly got a second look, I noticed that people

lingered and took their time, soaking up all the splendour of this unusual yet fascinating

collection of early Warhol fine art. The display included an impressive array of black and white

images, demonstrating Warhol’s mastery of line drawing and his unique and distinctive blot

technique, with a diverse range of subject matter from drug addiction and communist

politics to overtly homo-erotic line drawings of his friends in drag and even his

cute pussy cat Sam.

The items that demanded everyone’s attention, however, were not the eclectic yet elegant

black and white blot drawings but the glittering and glamorous GOLD. Specifically, his Crazy

Golden slippers, 12 fabulous examples to be exact. I don’t think people realised just

how lucky they were to have so many of these rare works in one place at one time (almost one

third of all the Golden slippers he produced), a feat that only an institution with the reach and

respect of the Whitney could achieve. Exhibited in the Bodley Gallery in 1956, the Golden

slippers were snapped up like hot cakes (to Warhol’s surprise), going to private collectors all

over New York City.

The Curators displayed the slippers side by side, from top to bottom in a large glass cabinet,

using a background of popular fashion magazines featuring Andy’s fashion drawings, an

intentional and very clever visual device, punctuating the important influence of 50’s fashion

and fame on Warhol’s ouvre. The Golden slipper with pink feather dedicated by Warhol to

David Evins (the most renowned shoe designer in NYC of the day) is a good demonstration of

this fashion magazine backdrop adorned by the Warhol graphic fashion images.

So, what is this obsession with Gold colored footwear? The curators included some vital images

that help us unravel this Warholian riddle. The first is the Glamour magazine double spread

titled “Success is a Job in New York” with Warhol’s image of stylish red shoes zig-zagging

overlapping ladders with a young, preppy, well dressed young lady atop the ladder, elegantly

smoking a cigarette, a potent sign of urban success. The second is an intriguing black

and white sketch of a hand holding the stem of several leaves juxtaposed to an identical image

that is now entirely filled with extravagant Gold leaf and the third key work is the

Andy’s famous Golden Book.

Let’s look at the red shoes first. These stylish red shoes labelled A through E (and of

course all available for purchase) symbolised stepping up the ladder of urban success for single

upwardly mobile young women in the Big Apple. No matter that they earned only $30 a week in

the secretarial pool (as confidently extolled in Sonntag’s accompanying article), these “must

have” shoes, however, were essential to anyone who wanted be somebody, confidently

stepping into and through the doorway of the modern American metropolis. No one in the

commercial New York art world would illustrate shoes better than Warhol. Women’s magazine

illustrations in the 1950’s, especially front-page images, were rapidly being replaced by stylish

colour photographs of fashion and Hollywood icons by some of the best photographers in

history, but Warhols’ shoe illustrations would continue to capture the imagination of women’s

fashion footwear like nothing else could.

The Gold leaf image, with and without the Gold, would highlight and personify the vital

role Gold leaf would play in Warhol’s oeuvre as the ultimate symbol of luxury and success. This

image also demonstrates the rigour, discipline and talent of Warhol as a commercial artist to

capture the essence and identity of an image with a minimum of linear strokes, akin to the

genius of Matisse as seen in his famous Visages.

The Gold metaphor would come to a climax in his Golden Book designed by Georgie

Duffee. There’s no need for me to describe it here, the image says a thousand words. Entire

sheets of glimmering gold. The infamy of this book, is legend among scholars of Warhol and

Pop Art. For myself I had never seen it up close in real life until the Whitney exhibit, a rare treat,

showing this copy to be number 3 of only 100 copies ever produced, written in Andy’s own

distinctive cursive writing, dedicated to boys, girls, fruits and of course flowers. Printed in the

critical year of 1957, this book included 20 prints, some hand coloured by Warhol on white and

gold paper, following in the great tradition of the Modern Art French book illustrators including

Matisse and Picasso. The drawing of James Dean to the right would connect the glamour of

Gold to the fame and iconic splendour of Hollywood stars, which would become an obsession for

Warhol (discussion to come later in a future relevant post). It is fitting that the catalog

produced by the Whitney for the Warhol exhibit would use an exquisite gold cover with Andy’s

1957 photographic image at centre. A must have for every serious Warhol admirer or


Perhaps, one work that can be added to these three images and help solve the riddle of the

Golden Slipper, but is rarely exhibited (frequently due to their fragile graphic nature and a

surprising reluctance on the part of scholars to consider them fine art) is a magazine add

printed in the January 1957 issue of Life Magazine, costing only 20 cents (image) with the apt

introductory statement “Speaking of Pictures”. Fittingly, this double spread shows five

of the very works shown at the Whitney that would be part of the original exhibit at the Badley

Gallery in 1957 selling from $50 to $225 each. The accompanying copy reads “they were eagerly

bought up for decoration.” If that isn’t a definition of fine art, I don’t know what is. The

Whitney exhibit would show a card written by Warhol that connects this exact exhibit at the

Bagley on 228 East 60th Street, directly to the LIFE magazine add making the critical

statement that “Andy Warhol’s golden slipper Show is as big as LIFE” a metaphor with a double

meaning referring to both the magazine and the viewers own experience of modern life.

Putting the images together, they point to the notion of shoe personification, but not just any

person and not just any shoe. The commentary of the LIFE magazine add expresses it best

“Famous people inspire fanciful footwear.” It is this transformation in urban identity as

mediated through the image of fame, personified in the shoe, using the visual acumen and

power of contemporary shoe design and striking Gold leaf, that is produced and reinforced in

the form of Warhol’s Golden Slipper. Some of the descriptions adjacent to the shoes in the add

highlight this very connection, such as, Kate Smith – admired because of broadcasts,

Truman Capote – made to symbolise his play, Julie Andrews – star of My Fair Lady …

reflects the shows décor, Elvis Presley – a buccaneer type of boot and James

Dean – a western boot to convey a rugged character.

More than just pretty decorations produced by a talented commercial artist meticulously

matching shoes to famous individuals, Warhol is creating an entire character or persona using

the fashion object of the shoe itself as the basis of an archetypal creation that would resonate

with aspiring 1957 New Yorkers (the show was a total sellout) and again with us a half century

later, looking at the same shoes this time as “legitimate fine art” displayed formally at the

Whitney. Using the overwhelming visual pleasure of the Golden Slipper, Warhol would meld

together icon, fame and celebrity, available to all through mass popular media, in ways never

before encountered in modern art and set the stage for codifying ordinary objects of the lived

modern world, including everyday commercial objects, such as the humble soup can, as icons of

Modern American Fine Art.

Unfortunately, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining the

numerous images in this room. There is so much more to talk about, such as, the drag,

transgender and homo-erotic images and how they connect with the gay community and

Warhol as a gay commercial artist in NYC. The image of Christian Dior titled Miss Dior, showing

Warhol’s clever and complex use of symbols in his graphic work, the list goes on. As you

are beginning to see, Warhol’s art and prolific career is complex, compelling us to think, reflect

and connect with our urban lived experience in ways never before seen, what modern art does

best in my humble opinion.

Alas we must move on in the Whitney exhibit where we will see in the very next room key

works demonstrating Warhol’s critical transition from commercial art to a career as a full-time

fine contemporary artist. Stay tuned.

#dkhgallery #scootergirlblog #andywarhol #andywarholgoldroom #andywarholwhitney #andywarholatthewhitney

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