Nothing special: Warhol’s childhood scrapbook

Following the MOOC course many of you have begun to explore the artworks of Warhol in your essays, articles, and commentaries. You will be drawn to your own Andy through the ways in which specific works speak to your interests, concerns and passions and find that there are many Warhol’s from the commercial illustrator, the filmmaker, partygoer, porn enthusiast, television producer, and of course the Pop artist.

photo of Andy Warhol with some of his paintings of Elizabeth Taylor

Many of those Andy’s are coming out in the articles produced here but I would like to make a case for also paying attention to the Warhol beyond the obvious, the canonical, the legitimate, the “safe,” and to also, maybe, think about the everyday or even the ephemeral Warhol. It is often in the quotidian works of Warhol, that which may be considered to be nothing special 1, that we find the most intriguing insights into ways he approached art and life. The Time Capsules, 612 boxes of stuff that Warhol kept from empty pill bottles, wigs, and gallery invites to pornography and pizza crusts. The Time Capsules are considered to be one of Warhol’s largest serial works alongside the 472 Screen Tests. While the Time Capsules often include material related to his most famous work, for example source material photographs, they also include a lot of junk and stuff from everyday life. Interest in the ephemeral and quotidian, which makes up the bulk of the Time Capsules’ content, often help us to make sense of Warhol’s work in ways that go beyond conventional art-historical interpretations; many of the best posthumous exhibitions are notable for the way in which they juxtapose the stuff of Warhol’s life alongside the “art.”

Warhol’s Childhood Scrapbook

One of my favourite objects of Warhol’s life is the scrapbook of autographed Hollywood portraits that he kept as a child. Many of them signed To Andy or To Andrew from well-known classical Hollywood stars such as Mae West and Carmen Miranda. This formative “work” may be understood as the germ of a number of themes and obsessions that underscore the majority of Warhol’s adult life from the fascination with Hollywood and stardom to the way in which the scrapbook is organised through uniformity, seriality, and an overt mechanical reproduction through the mass produced studio portraits of film stars.

a page from Andy Warhol's childhood scrapbook showing 8 celebrity photographs set in 2 rows

Andy Warhol’s childhood scrapbook

The Hollywood film star portrait becomes a source material in all phases of Warhol’s work and one is tempted to read the canonical Liz’s as the logical outcome of a fantasy first expressed in a child’s scrapbook only magnified in size and number; Warhol’s devotion to his Hollywood idols. Warhol returns time and time again to the manufactured Hollywood star image and yet the dominant reading of those images as numbing, flattening, decorative, superficial are really terms that attempt to evacuate the fandom, affect, and obsession that underscores Warhol’s lifelong devotion to stardom. It does begin with the scrapbook and we can also read that back as the distinctly gay male practice of gay cinephilia common to pre-Stonewall times. Marilyn gets caught up in the theme of death and disaster, they were of course deliberately exhibited alongside the car crashes and electric chairs, nonetheless, they also speak of desire and devotion and an alternative reading might suggest they are also mature acts of gay diva worship. Warhol would of course cultivate his own stable of film stars, divas, and personalities when he turned to filmmaking in 1963.

Shirley Temple

Portrait photo of Shirley Temple autographed to Andy Warhol

Shirley Temple

Apparently, the most cherished of all Warhol scrapbook autographs was that of Shirley Temple. Andy adored Shirley and it meant so much to him as a child as Simon Whatney recounts,

little queer mommy’s boy Andrew was predictable teased, bullied, hurt, and humiliated, but this does not in itself explain the imaginative passion with which he began to invent his own America, out of the elements that came most immediately to hand from the radio, comics, Saturday morning childrens’ cinema, and so on. Just as he invented Andy. Indeed, is its worth noting that Warhol learned to speak English only comparatively late in his childhood, and he learned it from the lips of Shirley Temple 2

Repetition & Serial Works

If the scrapbook provides some thematic clues that unify Warhol’s work then another clue to be found in this object perhaps explains the formal aspects. Was this scrapbook not Warhol’s first serial work? Did this implant ideas of repetition, seriality, collecting from an early age? Does the logic of how this object is organised seep unconsciously into the mind of little Andy and thus again can be read as significantly formative of the adult artist? Within the range of his work Warhol seems to be caught in his own compulsion to repeat and explore that childhood relation to his Hollywood scrapbook, its serial and repetitive layout, its structuring of fantasy and worship, the spell cast by glamour. Is his work therefore always returning in some way to that formative object that seems to be articulated on so many levels across the different media in which he worked? I’ll answer those in Warholian interview mode:

‘eh… yes…

mmm… oh,

maybe… yes.

National Velvet

detail view of Andy Warhol's National Velvet showing Elizabeth Taylor riding a horse. Image is repeatedly screen printed on a large canvas

National Velvet, 1963, Andy Warhol, detail

As a final thought I want to consider the posthumously discovered work National Velvet (1963) featuring a young Elizabeth Taylor from the film of the same name. This particular work discovered in Warhol’s house after his death was something he kept to himself. He kept it private and as John Waters suggests “almost like pornography hidden away in secret.” 3 Just Andy and his Liz. A work that no one else had seen or even knew about and, like Shirley Temple, depicts Taylor as a child star suggesting that it has some significance in relation to his childhood. But, the point I want to raise with National Velvet is the idea this it extends the scrapbook, gestures to the intimacy between Warhol and his Hollywood stars, and connects childhood fandom to adult artistic practice. Like a lot of his most canonical work, those Jackie’s, Liz’s, and Marilyn’s now sold at auction for astronomical prices, are these not just the ultimate million-dollar scrapbook?

Notes

photograph of Andy Warhol's canvas National Velvet featuring a screen printed young Elizabeth Taylor riding a horse and printed  dozens of times across and down the canvas.

National Velvet, 1963, Andy Warhol


  1.  
    Nothing Special is the title to an unrealised television programme that Warhol fantasizes about in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. 
  2.  
    Simon Watney (1996:23) “Queer Andy” in Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and Jose Esteban Munoz eds. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. Durham: Duke University Press. 
  3.  
    John Waters (2011:97) “Blue-collar Liz” in Warhol LIZ. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. 

Author: Gary Needham

Senior lecturer in film and television studies at Nottingham Trent University. Co-editor with Glyn Davis of Warhol in Ten Takes, 2013. Working on a book on Warhol & Edie Sedgwick and the films they made together.

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