Looking back, artist Glenn Ligon wonders whether Andy Warhol knew any ordinary African-Americans. Directing his telescope into Warhol’s orbit, he finds legends such as Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Jean-Michel Basquiat but no average Black people. So he readjusts his telescope to find Black “superstars” from Warhol’s Factory. Between Edie Sedgwick, Nico and many more, he finds a single Black woman: Dorothy Dean. She starred in several Warhol films and was undoubtedly glamorous, Ligon says —though he knows of no one who would call her a “superstar.”
Against this backdrop, Ligon quotes Warhol’s statement during a press conference in Ferrara, a city in Northern Italy. It is 1975, and Warhol is opening his exhibition Ladies and Gentlemen in the Palazzo dei Diamanti. All of the 105 works exhibited there—some of them large-format—show portraits of 14 different drag queens or transwomen. The persons portrayed are either African-Americans or People of Color from Lower Manhattan. Warhol mounted their Polaroid photographs as silkscreens and additionally hand-painted these enlarged photos with richly luminous, sometimes thickly applied colors. As Warhol told the journalists present, he frequently met the persons portrayed in New York; they were his friends, he said. Ligon casts doubts on the truth of this statement and is confirmed by the comprehensive catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s works. Warhol portrays the sitters like Hollywood icons, but withholds their names. They are not even mentioned in the titles of Warhols’s paintings of them, unlike was the case, for example, with the Marilyn Monroe series (although in that case the fame of the person portrayed would presumably have made redundant any particular titling).
While Warhol claims to have had a friendship with the sitters, he simultaneously anonymizes them. Such contradictions are repeated at all stages of the development of Ladies and Gentlemen, from the creation of the series to its circulation and on to its reappraisal in museums after Warhol’s death. They articulate structural discrimination within the art world as well as racism within the queer scene.