By: Rachel Orenstein | November 15, 2021
“Unidentified Woman (Gold Blouse)” holds a rather universal enchantment. Many are inexplicably drawn to the set of Polaroids, a remnant of pop-artist Andy Warhol’s unique brilliance. There is a glamorous anonymity immortalized in these twelve small, paper photographs.
When I first glimpsed the work in a promotional brochure for the University Art Museum’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” exhibit, I felt certain that I was staring into the eyes of someone I knew. I saw my grandmother’s likeness in the soft, pulled-back hair. I saw her confidence in the large gold earrings and the bright red smirk. A slim nose and glinting blue eyes further convinced me. She was a cousin in some capacity to Andy Warhol and a model in her youth, so it was a plausible idea. Imagine it: the unidentified woman identified. Decades of curious admirers would finally have their questions answered – and I would have discovered twelve charming Polaroids in which to see my grandmother. I was quite consumed by the fantasy of identifying one of the many Warhol-photographed identities now lost to time; there are certainly plenty of them.
The woman is not my grandmother. However, I am not the only one to deem a familiarity in this unidentified woman. While looking over the exhibit brochure with a classmate, I was persuaded to further research this collection when she exclaimed, “It’s so weird, it’s like I know her!” Upon meeting with the Registrar and Collections Manager, Darcie Abbatiello, and the Director and Chief Curator, Corinna Ripps Schaming, two very knowledgeable women from the University Art Museum, I learned how the committee that chose to present this collection was similarly drawn to the piece.
Abbatiello and Schaming taught me how Andy Warhol was an avid portrait photographer. More than 150 Warhol Polaroids currently reside in the SUNY Albany Collections Study Space and thousands of other images were photographed by Warhol during his career, usually to be used for screen tests that created his more famous screen-printed pieces. This then explains why the unidentified woman appears so pale: she had been put in a white mask to prepare the color work of Warhol’s screen printing, should the images be used for such a commission.
My prior assumption had been that the woman’s paleness emphasized her beauty as it adhered to traditional standards of femininity. This idea also had some merit because Warhol typically did not put children in the masks, as though attempting to preserve their youthful ignorance of scrutinizing beauty standards. Warhol had fixated on physical appearance since his own childhood and admits uncertainty in what is objectively beautiful in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. In it, he explains, “I always hear myself saying, ‘She’s a Beauty!’ or ‘He’s a Beauty!’ but I never know what I’m talking about. I honestly don’t know what beauty is….” He also writes in this book, however ironically, “I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty.”
The woman of focus in “Unidentified Woman (Gold Blouse)” is certainly beautiful. As though taken by a mistaken paparazzi, these twelve Polaroids capture the glamour of an imagined east-coast Hollywood. She simultaneously presents the timeless elegance of a vintage celebrity and the haunting familiarity of a lost relative. Admirers do not know the woman, but they would like to.
There is a competitive relationship between the known and the unknown in this collection of Polaroids: “Unidentified Woman (Gold Blouse)” toys with what viewers assume about the subject. The woman’s appearance is the only thing offered as an explanation of her character. She carries an air of importance that leaves onlookers wondering who she was and what she knew. This woman will forever be seen beside her Warhol-given title of “unidentified,” which is an impressive legacy, though likely not the one she had imagined for herself, whoever she was.
When I reached out to Donald G. Warhola, a nephew to Warhol himself, a liaison of The Andy Warhol Museum, and the vice president of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (the foundation that gifted this collection to the university), he provided me with an explanation of her allure much clearer than mine. He stated, “I believe what makes this body of work, this series of polaroids, so special is that it gives the viewer an intimate look into the process that my uncle used to create his commissioned portraits. It allows you to feel what the sitter is feeling. Its title, ‘Unidentified Woman,’ in some ways gives you the permission to become the sitter.” In other words, the humility of the portrait invites viewers to recognize the people they love through her face. She could be anyone; she even could be the viewer themself. She has no certain individual identity, and so she can reflect humanity in its entirety.
Such is the poignant purpose of this exhibit. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” asks viewers to see themselves in its deeply personal and broadly human pieces. Besides this piece, other works by Andy Warhol in this exhibit feature celebrities and the unknown alike, appearing both ordinary and spectacular. Portraits of people holding miniature cameras by Andreas Feininger commentate on the progression of time and cultural vanity. Katria Foster’s “Domestic Affair 6” suggests the relevancy of domestic roles in developing identity. Rachel Foullon questions the abstract construction of self with “Washboard”. These artworks, and many others, come together in this exhibit to create one grand reflection of human identity.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” is open to the public until December 11, 2021, in the University Art Museum, free of charge. I implore you all to stroll through it - if not for the artists, then for yourself. Observing the portraits on the walls, you may be surprised to find yourself reflected back at you. Or, perhaps, you will feel drawn to someone you inexplicably recognize. Grant your attention to those otherwise unknown; one day, your own legacy might be upheld by those who glimpse your anonymous, immortalized likeness.