August 12, 2019
By Larry Luowei Zhang
This portrait depicts the remarkable transgender and AIDS activist Marsha P. Johnson. Her resistance and outspoken advocacy during the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, which began on the night of June 28, 1969, helped spark the LGBTQ civil rights movement in America.
This portrayal of Johnson by Warhol derives from his series Ladies and Gentlemen, which focuses on drag queens and trans women, primarily of color. At the time (and still today), transgender communities were at severe risk of various forms of discrimination, poverty, and violence. Significantly, when Warhol’s series was first shown, he did not identify his subjects by their names, effectively objectifying them as “other.”
As a trans star, Marsha experienced “so much violence-from the police, the outside world, and often from lesbian and gay activists and artists (Gossett 2017).” She first came to Warhol’s studio space, the Factory—then located on Union Square—at his invitation in the summer of 1974. Working on commission for Luciano Anselmino, an art dealer based in Turin, from Warhol made 105 paintings in four sizes depicting trans women. Marsha did not attract much of Warhol’s attention: in Ladies and Gentlemen, “a mere two canvases out of the hundreds [sic] Warhol produced (Ligon 2018, 79)” are portraits of her. Neil Printz, the editor of Warhol’s catalogue raisonné, wrote that the artist may have felt that “she was not charismatic enough as a model (Printz and King-Nero 2014, 43).”
Despite Warhol’s evident indifference, Marsha’s glamour and generosity of spirit clearly shine through in his portrait of her. In 1970, she joined her friend, the trans activist Silvia Rivera, in founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to fight for the rights of transgender and queer youth. She was also an HIV-positive organizer with ACT UP, and an important figure in the Stonewall Riots. That same year, she helped organize the first-ever Gay Pride March. Throughout her life, Marsha pushed for greater visibility and acceptance of the trans community, inspiring the generation of activists who came after her.
Now let’s focus on Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen series as a whole. He created these works from photographs made with a Polaroid camera, which is known for capturing informal poses and producing instant results. Warhol often used Poloroids as the basis for his silkscreen paintings. It may be difficult for today’s audiences to appreciate just how widespread and popular Polaroid photographs were in the American fashion industry during the 1970s, since today we can instantly take and preview photos on our smartphones and digital cameras. Back then, in the absence of such equipment, Polaroids allowed photographers to get quick feedback on the viability of their initial concepts, and the images could be shared with others involved in a shoot.
During the 1970s, Warhol used Polaroid to help create his portraits, most of which focus on pop icons or sitters who commissioned them. The models in Ladies and Gentlemen are, however, not paying customers. Anselmino requested that Warhol use “completely anonymous and impersonal travestite [sic] (Printz and King-Nero 2014, 24),” instead of ones already in Warhol’s orbit. In fact, Warhol paid Johnson and his other models in the series for their service. Since the paintings were intended to be packed off to Anselmino in Italy, “most of his models never saw the finished products, and even if they did, were in no position to critique Warhol’s depictions of them (Ligon 2018, 81).” But this fact does not make Ladies and Gentlemen inferior to Warhol’s other portraits.
In contrast with his portraits of well-known sitters, in which Warhol’s colors tend to be more harmonious, the images in Ladies and Gentlemen display wild, clashing tones. Perhaps Warhol’s sense of freedom to play with colors and shapes derived from the freedom from conventions he observed in these trans-women before him. Their sense of freedom, despite the violence and trauma that marked their daily existence, is an integral part of their self-invented and colorful lives. In truth, the expressive power seen in this series is stronger than in Warhol’s portraits depicting celebrities. They are masterpieces of the ordinary.
For this year’s Pride Parade celebrating Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, I marched with a group from the LGBT Network. I was amazed by the pure, unadulterated sense of joy I experienced everywhere around me. And I was deeply inspired by the optimistic and positive mood I observed among transgender people. They radiated pride in being their true selves, regardless of the sometimes-negative comments aimed at them every day. In my view, this spirit embodies Marsha’s approach, and is also reflected in Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen series, which encourages viewers to act on their deepest desires.
Gossett, Reina. Teen Vogue. October 11, 2017. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/reina-gossett-marsha-p-johnson-op-ed (accessed August 1, 2019).
Ligon, Glenn. “Pay It No Mind.” In Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, by Donna De Salvo, 78-81. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018.
Printz, Neil, and Sally King-Nero. The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 4. New York: Phaidon, 2014.
Larry Luowei Zhang is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He expects to receive a M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in May 2020.