There has always been a complex relationship between ‘ the artist’ and the pop culture ‘celebrity’. In many cases, they feed off one another and the boundaries become completely fluid. Many artists become more famous for their personae or celebrity status than their work, and the two become interchangeable. Artists such as Dali are now remembered as much for their biography, lifestyle and appearance as they are for their art, and current artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are seen as much in the gossip columns as they are recognised for their work. The personae of ‘artist’ and ‘celebrity’ have always intertwined, sometimes advantageously, sometimes engineered. I am not so much interested in the artist as celebrity, such as Banksy, or the celebrity as artist, exemplified by the huge success of paintings by singer Marilyn Manson, TV presenter Ferne Cotton and even Hitler. I am concentrating on the way that, especially post 1960 artists have increasingly been using famous faces and personae as a medium through which to channel their ideas. The celebrity becomes a universal ‘object’ that can be infinately manipulated and interpreted to the artist’s outcomes, a puppet through which to speak.
It is fascinating to see that the idea of utilising the status of a ‘celebrity’ for artistic means has been prevelent throughout history. Most interestinly I found were the ‘attitudes’ of Lady Emma Hamilton in the late 18th century. She herself was (in)famous and the subject of many stories and manifestations in her time and today, however she would also stage what were known as her ‘attitudes’, a concept and term that she invented. In dressing up as famous, mostly Greek, gods and personalities she would not only mimic the subject, but also transpose her own ‘portrait’, fame and social commentary into the tableau. “ She appeared surrounded by candles within a huge gilt frame so that she became a kind of living painting”. This demonstrates not only the idea of the celebrity as an empty vessel into which the artist can transpose their ideas, but also the complex relationship between arist and celebrity. Hamilton starts to use the celebrity as a medium, much like a painters colour, which she imbues with meaning through the staging.
In the 1960’s the notion of celebrity as we know it today started to become fully realised. Not only was there film, music, newspapers and magazines setting up a connection to the other worldly realm of god-like individuals, but the advent of TV brought with it a more immediate and constant connection to the celebrity. These idolised, larger than life personalities, were now directly with us in our homes. In this possition the celebrity uniquely transgresses the boundary between fantasy and reality, becoming an everyday part of our lives yet still inhabiting a completely separate and fictional plane. I will look at the the way artists use ‘the celebrity’, through the work of three artists that I feel demonstrate different ways the medium can and has been utilised since the 1960’s.
Having said I am not interested in the artist as celebrity, I am going to start with perhaps the most famous artist of all time, Andy Warhol. With Warhol, there is almost a sense that rather than speaking through the celebrity, he is hiding behind these larger than life characters. His huge garishly coloured screen prints of the uber-celebritys of his day, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor etc., are so overt there is little space for Warhol himself within them, the subject rather than artist seems to own the piece. Even before his ability to command his infamously celebrity filled inner circle of friends, they were part of his life. He had created an alternative to the established Hollywood star system, a group of pawns that he could direct, seemingly only there to act out his ideas. Like a Hollywood film, the actors, without a film, or director (the role Warhol assumed), do not exist. As he became assimilated into the world of celebrity, he took up the unique position of papparazi on the inside, described as “inside looking inner”. This position allowed him to use celebrity in a completely new and subversive way, both taking the ‘unseeable’ photo and making it ‘seen’. Warhol was notorously introverted, and he seems to use the ‘celebrity’ as an outlet for his own inner voices, much as a dead spirit is believed to talk through a medium. Warhol described his perfect photo as “one that’s in focus of a famous person doing something unfamous”, this humanising of the celebrity, seen in his quick snaps, highlights the area between fantasy and reality that the ‘celebrity’ operates. This concept is best summed up for me in a poem by the Warhol contempory Ray Johnson written in 1975. His description of a ‘borderline criminal’ demonstrates the place I feel celebrity inhabits. “Borderline criminals, you see, restrict their activities, To the thin edges between land and sea, The reflection and reality, And the image and what it seems to be”.
Two interesting contrasting bodies of work by Warhol, which concentrate on the dicotomy created by celebrity, are his intimate snapshots of his circle of friends and his big scale idolitary screenprints. It becomes interesting to see how Warhols prints themselves leave the realm of the subversive, commenting on the tragic nature of fame and and the mass produced Hollywood churning out of ‘idols’, (as in Marilyn (1962)) and become a status symbol of the rich and famous (such as the print of New York socialite Nan Kempner (1976)). No longer are the canvases working for Warhol, they have now become ‘celebrity’, an empty vessel. His camera too starts to become more prevelant as he is engulfed into the world of celebrity, as he seeminly uses it to try and build up the barrier between fantasy and reality through which celebrity works, a barrier he had almost dissolved. The comparison to paparazzi of the time, Ron Galella demonstrates Warhols unique position “Warhols subjects sought him out, while Galella’s spurned him, avoided him and sometimes threatened him”. Warhol seems to have been so influenced by the world that he started off lampooning, that he is now no longer distinguished from his subjects. Warhol has (unwittingly?) become the biggest celebrity of them all.
One of Warhols contempories who also played with celebrities in his work is the conspicuosly un-famous Jack Smith. Smith and Warhol both started from similar points, Smith having also assembled his own replacement ‘star system’ even coining the word superstar, later attributed to Warhol. Smith’s fascination was however not the extreme hights of celebrity, such as Warhol’s Elvis’s and Marilyn’s, but its fickle nature and the empty carcassses that have been dumped by celebrity culture. He approached these ‘carcasses’ much like a taxidermist, keeping the appearance of the original, but completely re-inhabiting the interior. Almost as though a celebrity exists independently from the human, being just a role, persona, image or facet. Each facet having the possiblity to be humanised in an infinate number of ways, linking fantasy and reality, and inhabiting this borderline. These carcasses, left by the wayside of fame represented for Smith all the glamour, camp and grandeur of celebrity, but were completely ready for his re-interpretation; he was in control of their voice. As the celebrity only ‘lived’ in one snapshot or role for the rest of its existence, its voice was completely open for interpretation, much like Lady Hamilton had done by taking a famous historical image, weaving herself into the surrounding unknown. What becomes interesting is not the little we know about the subject, but the unending supply of what we can imagine.
Smiths most obsessive and fascinating discovery was that of Maria Montez. She is interesting in this context for two main reasons; Smith transferred his vision of her image onto a friend, re-naming him Mario Montez. And perhaps most fascinatingly, today Maria Montez is most famous in her re-invention through Smith, rather than anything she herself was originally known for. Smith’s, much like Warhol’s Marilyn has completely superceeded the original in iconic status, but unlike Warhol who still relied on Marilyns voice through the piece, Smith has become the ventriloquist, Maria Montez the dummy. Smith has used Maria Montez’s story, fiction and reality, his story, fiction and reality and created a complex collage that is so far from the original, yet still contained within Montez, the celebrity thus becoming real. Smith describes art as “one big thrift shop”; this exemplifies the way he uses the vessel of the celebrity to fill. Like a film is seen as a vehicle for the star, Smith sees the star as his vehicle.
Smith’s use of Maria Montez for his personal needs is most obvious in his ‘creation’ of Mario Montez, a Smithian re-incarnation of the star. This simplifying of Maria Montez to her roles, then padding out with Smith’s imagination, creates a grotesque figure, one, which like Frankensteins monster is very recognisable in its creator. Interestingly the cycle of celebrity continued, when, Mario, Smith’s creation based on Maria, went on to star in many of Warhol’s films (such as Mario Banana (1964)). Smith found it hard that the character he felt he owned through creation was now having a celebrity life of his own. This led to Smith’s constant attack on Warhol for appropriating the celebrity, rather than as Smith felt he was doing, creating something intirely new from a cast and ‘thrift shop’ of memories. Smith saw himself in the role of the great Hollywood director, with everyone at his disposal. Whilst Warhol increasingly was this ‘Hollywood director’, Smith had to rely on a much more subversive and personal ownership on the celebrity. Smith would call upon his bank of popular culture knowledge to create, like Lady Hamilton, a total experience or atmosphere, or to bring in my third artist Karen Kilimnik, whose work is described as “a highly personal evocation of attitudes/sensibilities informed by history and pop culture”.
“It’s fun being able to paint a big house, or lots of animals, and there they are as if they’re mine now” says Kilimnik. Her relationship to celebrity is an interesting one. A mix between Smiths appropriation, where she now feels that through her interpritation they have become hers, like dolls with which to enact, and a more Lady Hamilton approach, in which she weaves herself into the moments of glamour and history. In the self-portrait intitled ‘Me as Isabelle Adjani denying she has AIDS’ (1988) Kilimnik uses the persona and name of Adjani to create a very personal, but at the same time very tabloid comment. The universal image of Adjani as icon, as celebrity is subverted by Kilimnik’s rough style and confessional title. By taking over the celebrity’s voice Kilimnik has personalised the experience. Celebrity is no longer separate from the human. Like Smith she has taken a shell and filled it, humanising the idol. Kilimnik plays with the rift between the celebrity and reality with a constant and complete blurring of the boundaries. In her world there no longer exists what we experience as real in time, space or persona. Her work acts as a snapshot of a place and time, that may or may not of existed, we recognise the people, the places, the situation, but the collage is often so incongruent, we can only live the piece in its unique constellation. Like Warhol’s paparazzi snaps of the celebrity acting out of character, Kilimnik’s work bridges the gap by inhabiting the celebrity.
“In a period in which everyone seems to be obsessed by time, I’m fascinated by people who have in one way or another outlasted their celebrity. Every time you encounter these figures there’s something to learn: they have an unlimited store of experience. After all, we all want to relish history, even if it’s only reflected in the eyes of others” Ending on this quote by artist Francesco Vezzoli, I hope to demsonstrate my choice of the word vessel in connection with the celebrity as an artist’s medium. Their unique place in our society allows them to inhabit, like no other, a place, both close, real, lasting and personal yet completely unreachable, fantastical and transient. By tapping into these emotions artists have endeavoured to create pieces that exists on levels of extreme intimacy, but are also completely universal. A place that no longer exists completely in fantasy or reality, but exists in a history that might have been, a misremembered collage of specifics that together create an individual atmoshphere. Using the celebrity as a vessel by which to travel, allows us to exist, like they do, in a complete moment, and relish it.
Star-Gazer, Andy Warhol’s World and His Films, Stephen Koch, Praeger, 1973
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol, Harbrace, 1975
Warhol’s World, Glenn O’Brien, Hauser & Wirth/Steidl, 2006
Ray Johnson, Michael Morris and Sharla Sava, Morris/Trasov Archive, 1999
Wait For Me At The Bottom Of The Pool, The Writings of Jack Smith, J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, Serpent’s Tail/High Risk, 1997
Flaming Creature, Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, Edward Leffingwell, Serpent’s Tail, 1997
Period Eye: Karen Kilimnik’s Fancy Pictures, Scott Rothkopf and Meredith Martin, Koenig Books, 2007
Karen Kilimnik, Lionel Bovier, jrp|ringier, 2006
Art - A Sex Book, John Waters and Bruce Hainley, Thames & Hudson, 2003
John Waters Change of Life, Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips, Harry N. Abrams, 2004
Unwatchable, John Waters, Marianne Boesky, 2006
Francesco Vezzoli, Germano Celant, Fondazione Prada, 2004