Oct 10, 2011

Andy Warhol's Wig - a defining art object

"Warhol's wig depended on him. Abandoned in the vitrine, the prosthesis looks like a flattened jellyfish, a splayed broom, an apology." ~ Wayne Koestenbaum for Artforum 1998.
 Self-portrait (Fright Wig), 1986

Many identify Andy Warhol by his trademark wig, a variously grey to silver contraption that sat uneasily upon his head. And sat it did, rather uncomfortably, with no pretension of being real. The ubiquitous two-tone hairpiece was not a simple fashion item, but rather a fundamental device for the creation and self-mythologized persona of "Andy Warhol," ultimately rendering him brand-like.

Warhol, says Baudrillard: “never aspired to anything but this machinic celebrity, a celebrity without consequence which leaves no trace” – the “perfect artifical personality;” “a kind of hologram;” or “otherness raised to perfection.”1

Warhol's self-created "otherness" was achieved, in part, through a delineation of his image via "the wig." But there was not simply one wig, there were hundreds of wigs, as it turns out. Andy never threw a wig away and when he died in 1987, they were found in an assortment of boxes and envelopes. There are 40 alone archived in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, PA.


Paige Powell, John Sex and Men in Andy Warhol Wigs, 1983.
©2010 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The wigs were made from hair imported from Italy and sewn by a New York wig maker.  Labels on the inside crown read, "HAIRPIECE, Original by Paul." It was one of these that Warhol framed and gave to Jean Michel Basquiat as an artwork. 
Thursday, December 19, 1985
Tina Chow called and said there was a dinner for Jean Michel at 9:00, just really small. Jean Michel had his mother and her friend there. I brought him a present, one of my own hairpieces. He was shocked. One of my old ones. Framed. I put '"83" on it but I don't know when it was from. It's one of my Paul Bochicchio wigs. It was a "Paul Original."
Wigs are personal and rather disgusting, but Warhol's instinct to give Basquiat one of his, as if it were an ordinary collectible item, turned out to be quite astute. In 2006, a Warhol wig sold for $10,800 at a Christie's auction.


Warhol began to wear wigs in the 1950s to cover up his early male pattern baldness and gradually graying hair. (He also had his nose "planed" in 1956.) The first wig was a mousy brown, but he moved into yellow-blond, then platinum, and ultimately settled on shades of grey/silver, wearing the wigs with his existing darker hair sticking out at the bottom. Warhol settled on grey because if you always appear old no one knows how old you really are.
The wigs changed and slipped.
The thing about the wig is that the more it looked like a wig, the less it looked like a wig. Was it a wig? Because the wigs that look like wigs are the ones that attempt to look like real hair, and Andy's never looked like a wig."
~ Kicking the Pricks, Derek Jarman

Despite the obviousness of the sham, when Warhol's wig was snatched from his head on October 30, 1985 it was his worst nightmare come true:
"I guess I can't put off talking about it any longer. Okay, let's get it over with. Wednesday. The day my biggest nightmare came true... I'd been signing America books for an hour or so when this girl in line handed me hers to sign and then she - did what she did... I don't know what held me back from pushing her over the balcony. She was so pretty and well-dressed. I guess I called her a bitch or something and asked how she could do it. But it's okay, I don't care - if a picture gets published, it does. There were so many people with cameras. Maybe it'll be on the cover of Details, I don't know... It was so shocking. It hurt. Physically... And I had just gotten another magic crystal which is supposed to protect me and keep things like this from happening..."2
Self-Portrait (Passport Photograph with Altered Nose), 1956
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

But Warhol's wig was more than just a cover-up for baldness or a device to devise a distinct identity;  the wig had roots in the deep insecurities of the Catholic, homosexual Andy Warhol. In a 2001 issue of American Art, Bradford Collins describes a number of ways that Warhol was tortured by his appearance, describing Warhol as having an "image of himself as severely flawed."3 Warhol's desire to alter his appearance related to a belief that ugliness was a barrier to both fame and to erotic encounters.

While on the one hand he wanted to appear attractive to men, he also understood that the commercial success he so desired required him to appear less gay. "Emile de Antonio, had convinced him that if he wanted to succeed in the New York art world - then both antibourgeois and homophobic - he would not only have to hide his commercial activities to conform to the profile of the avant-garde artist, but would also have to follow the example of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and give up his 'swish' behavior and 'try to look straight.'"4 

But what signifies beauty? or gayness? Warhol began to explore cultural notions of beauty, identity,  and refashioning ones appearance early in his career. The idea of the "make-over" can be seen not only in a series of Before and After paintings that Warhol created in the early 1960s based on classified ads selling nose jobs, but also in a doctored passport photo from 1956. Its hard not to read Before and After as a "deflected and disguised self-portrait,"5 knowing that Warhol had had his own nose re-shaped. Three other works at this time, Wigs (1960), Bald? (1960) and Nine Ads (1960), also point to both a personal concern with appearance modification and broader paradigms of beauty. However, it is camp that "served as the theatrical "bracketing" that made confession into a social event, and rendered the marketing of body transformations into art."6

 Before and After, 1961, MOMA

Turns out there were many ways Warhol sought to "compensate for his looks. Art dealer Ivan Karp recalled that when he brought collectors to Warhol's studio in 1961 the artist often wore theatrical masks, apparently to hide his skin problems. 'I don't think he was comfortable with the way he looked, because he had a terrible complexion at the time,' Karp said."7

Thus the wig was more than a wig. It symbolized what Warhol wanted to become as well as what he felt compelled to hide. The style icon Daphne Guinness speaks about how clothes can be used, like armor, to hide behind, to protect oneself, even as they ultimately garner attention. It was in this same manner that Warhol's wig allowed him to hide in plain sight.




1. Dr. Gerry Coulter, Jean Baudrillard’s Andy Warhol Survives Euro Pop, Euro Art and Beyond, Fall 2008.
2. www.warholstars.org/chron/
3. Bradford R. Collins
, "Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol's Closet: A Psychoanalytic Detective Story," American Art (Autumn, 2001).
4.. Ibid.

5. Caroline A. Jones, Machine in the Studio, University of Chicago Press, 1996, page 225.
6. Caroline A. Jones, Machine in the Studio, University of Chicago Press, 1996, page 225-6.
7. Bradford R. Collins
, "Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol's Closet: A Psychoanalytic Detective Story," American Art (Autumn, 2001).




2 comments:

Vincent Bergerat said...

1985.
I remember perfectly the book signing and the wig being snatched, as I was standing one meter from A.W., accross the table, taking photos with a friend. I was so schocked and amazed that I immediately stopped and lowered my camera, and watched the girl jump one floor high to the street level and run away in the street (was it south Houston ?). Then I saw Andy Warhol calmly putting his hood on and continue signing and smiling, as if nothing had happened,

V.

Tamsen Ellen said...

great story Vincent! Thanks so much for adding it. Nice recovery Andy!