For many of the ambitious young men who surrounded Andy Warhol, the enigmatic pop artist opened doors otherwise inaccessible, but also cast inescapable shadows.
photographer last month Big PowellA painting from her collection by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a longtime close friend of Warhol’s, was offered for sale at Art Basel. Powell, who moved back to her native Oregon in 1994, is still identified with her time in New York, where she arrived in the late 1980’s. She began selling ads for Interview Warhol magazine a few months later. There she met Basquiat and was his girlfriend for just over a year.
In her photographs, Powell captures the legendary New York City of the 1980s, a time when, because of her connections, she had first-line access to major artists and scene-makers. Her photos are included in Basquiat Warhol Gallery This year at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and in a group show that just opened at ILY2 Gallery in Portland. However, her reputation lay in her relationships with famous men: Basquiat, and especially Warhol.
The connection with Warhol is even more notable for Brigid Berlin, a hulking figure from a privileged Upper East Side background, who passed away at the age of 80 in 2020. She arrived at Warhol’s Factory in 1965 and stayed until Warhol’s fatal gallbladder surgery in 1987. They were the best of friends, referring to each other as Mr. and Mrs. Pork. Berlin, who was introduced to amphetamines by her socialite mother in hopes of losing weight for the obese girl, was in that department as Brigid Polk, a reference to her penchant for poking herself and others with a speed-dose syringe.
“Brigid Berlin: The Heaviest,” On display by Vito Schnabel in Manhattan’s West Village through August 18 is the most comprehensive display of her work since the 1970 exhibition in Heiner Friedrich Gallery in Cologne, Germany, and explores its diverse endeavours. She is primarily remembered for documenting life in the factory with a Polaroid camera and tape recorder—two tools that Warhol used with great devotion. It is uncertain who affected whom.
The people at the factory said she was the first to make Polaroids and audio tapes, and Andy got them from her. Allison Gingras, an independent curator who curated the Schnabel exhibition. “I am always drawn to these women who are outside the hallowed art history. This show is a comprehensive look at the complex life and work of Brigid Berlin, to show that her agency was much greater than the way it was approached through a Warhol lens.”
Describing both Powell and Berlin, Gingras said, “They have this position of aide, and their special agency and manners do not give their due.”
In very different ways, Powell and Berlin dated people who crossed paths with Warhol. Powell’s approach was more conventional. I took pictures, mostly black and white, first with a 35mm camera, and then for some time with a medium format Rolleiflex camera. A generous selection of her works has been included in a boxed set,”Beulah Land,” Published in 2019. “It was Andy who really inspired me,” Powell said. “It was very encouraging. My photos were natural. It wasn’t about documentation. I felt inspired.”
Despite Powell’s disclaimer, many of her photographs, especially those of Warhol, are invaluable documents: Warhol with Louise Bourgeois, Warhol with Basquiat, Warhol with Keith Haring as Santa Claus. Others stick to the mind as human images regardless of whether the subject celebrates it or not. A lively shot of an art dealer Leo Castelli In 1986, elegantly dressed as always, seated with his hands clasped and a copy of an interview on his lap, he shows an indescribably universal weariness, a gloom that photography is particularly apt to convey. Art critic Edit DeAk poses in front of a Howard Chandler Christie mural from 1934 at the Café des Artistes. Her hair in bangs, her huge eyes echoing those of Christie’s water mermaid, she looks just as romantic as art.
Berlin production is smarter. As the show’s title indicates, her constant battle to shed the pounds was a major preoccupation, sabotaged by overeating as she could easily eat two key lime pies dipped in whipped cream, one after the other. Another obsession was her mother, Muriel “Honey” Berlin, wife of Richard Berlin, the powerful and wealthy head of the Hearst Corporation, who was bitterly disappointed that Brigid did not develop into the Upper East Side socialite she was born to be. In a shrill voice that could burn tree bark (an excerpt from a phone conversation recorded by Brigid is included in an audio section of the show), she belittles and berates her adult daughter for her dissolute lifestyle.
“He. She He is About weight,” declares a needle-stitched pillow from Berlin. But it was also about Honey, whom Brigid, with age, had become akin to in style, temperament, and conservative Republican politics. One gallery wall is covered in custom wallpaper that Brigid installed in her East 28th apartment. Street where she resided from 1986 until her death in 2020. It’s the kind of colorful floral motif usually seen in a heavy fitting nanny salon, but in this clever, understated design, cabbage roses have been replaced with cabbage.
Other remnants of her pleasant surroundings, including a shadow-box frame she filled with her lovable puppet hoops, compete in the gallery with work that convulsed Honey in quarrelsome fits. Using her bare breasts as a paintbrush, beginning in the 1970s Berlin made “nipple prints,” her pigment-filled areolas producing balloon-like shapes and freshwater angels. Even more scandalous are three of the little books in which she kept drawings that urged artists to make their own penises. Self-illustrators include Jasper Johns, Leonard Cohen, Dennis Hopper, Robert Smithson, and Bryce Marden.
Technically, Berlin was ahead of her time as a woman who unabashedly indulged her sensual desires. Not that she would have called herself a feminist. “You could say her work has feminist content in it, but her conservative background works against that,” said Gingras. “There’s a lot of inner misogyny in her wanting to be one of the guys and have that validation. She’d make ‘nipple imprints’ without thinking of burning her bra. What really matters is what’s in the works.”
Like Powell, Berlin documented many Polaroids of Warhol’s entourage. But Gingeras contextualizes those images, just as part of Berlin’s bountiful output, by arranging the Polaroids into three collections—one dedicated to Warholiana, the other to self-portraits and shots of notable artists, including Willem de Kooning and John Cage. The exhibition concludes with a tribute to Berlin given by artists of the day, incl Francesco ClementeAnd Jenna Strange And Gene Kaplowitz.
Although Berlin and Powell are now considered outside of Warhol’s association, they cannot be separated from him. All of the people in Warhol’s constellation whom he described as “stars” were indeed, with the exception of Lou Reed, moons illuminated by his reflected light.
After entering New York’s bohemian elite, Warhol provided a philosophical underpinning to Powell and Berlin. Both women shared his concept, emanating from Marcel Duchamp, that whatever the artist says is art. When I asked Powell if she considered herself a photographer, she replied, “I’m an artist. I still do photography and videography. I’m an art curator too. It’s like – I have artistic ideas, I think about making things happen.”
While Powell and I were talking on the phone, a text arrived from the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch About my Basquiat painting, in which the artist depicted himself and Powell as chimpanzees. The back story is that before coming to New York, Powell taught, among other things, American Sign Language to chimpanzees, including those named Delilah and Leah, at the Portland Zoo.
“Jean-Michel was really intrigued that I was with the chimps,” she recalls. “He had a picture, not even a picture I took, of Delilah and Leah feeding each other. We always fed each other when we had dinner, with spoon and fork.” The painting shows Paul and Basquiat as monkeys caring for each other. Ditch was telling Powell that he had sold it to a young collector for $5 million.
Powell was excited. “It’s $1.5 million less than we asked for, but I can live with it,” she said. The picture was on long-term loan to the Portland Museum of Art. “I decided to sell it because I wanted to buy a house where I could have a big room to build my archives on,” she explained. “Also, just to move on.”
Although Powell didn’t say it, she was establishing herself as a true Warholian artist, executing one of the master’s most quoted aphorisms: “Making money is an art, working is an art, and doing well is the best art.”