Andy Warhol's 1950s erotic drawings of men to be seen for first time

Collection lined up for major publication not displayed before due to homophobia artist encountered

Dozens of previously unpublished Andy Warhol drawings on the theme of love, sex and desire are to be seen for the first time. The pop artist’s foundation is releasing a major study of his depictions of young men in private moments, whether in a loving embrace or more explicit acts.

They date from the 1950s, when Warhol was a successful commercial illustrator but struggling to find recognition as a fine artist, long before he created paintings and prints of movie stars, soup cans and soap-pad boxes that turned him into one of the world’s most famous artists.

Standing Male Torso c 1955-57. Black ballpoint on manila paper 16 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches.
Standing Male Torso c1955-57. Black ballpoint on manila paper. Photograph: Andy Warhol/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

When he tried to exhibit his drawings in 1950s New York, Warhol encountered homophobic rejection from gallery owners, the latest research reveals.

Michael Dayton Hermann, of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, said he had been “mesmerised” by images that are a precursor to the obsessive way in which Warhol was later to capture people and moments with his Polaroid and 35mm cameras.

He added that they showed an “emotional vulnerability in a way that a camera just doesn’t” and that “a lot of times you don’t see in Warhol’s work”.

He observed that Warhol declared that he wanted to be a machine and created works which were machine-like: “When you have a drawing of someone, the artist’s hand is there. There isn’t a barrier between the artist and the subject … It’s a much more personal and intimate way to capture someone and it tells you a lot about the artist as much as the subject.”

Hermann’s forthcoming book, Andy Warhol: Early Drawings of Love, Sex and Desire, will be published by Taschen this summer. It will include hundreds of drawings, of which “a good portion have previously not been seen”, Hermann said. “This is the first time that one monograph has been dedicated to comprehensively illustrating and reproducing these works.”

About 20 of the drawings will also feature in a forthcoming Warhol retrospective at Tate Modern in London, which opens in March.

Male Couple c.1955 Blue ballpoint on manila paper 16 3/4 x 14 inches.
Male Couple c1955 Blue ballpoint on manila paper. Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Research for the book included interviews with artists and others who recalled Warhol’s rejection by galleries in the 1950s when he tried to show these drawings. None of them could have imagined that, in 2013 his celebrated 1963 work Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) would sell for $105m (£65m).

The subject matter of the drawings was too controversial for them. In the book, Hermann writes: “That these works were created by a practising Catholic in the United States at a time when sodomy was a harshly punished felony in every state illustrates that, even at a young age, Warhol embraced the role of the nonconformist.”

He said: “Fellatio is probably the most explicit depiction that you see. There are men fully nude embracing one another. It depicts the full gamut of love, sex and desire.”

Male Partial Figure (verso) 1954. Black ink on manila paper 23 3/4 x 17 7/8 inches.
Male Partial Figure (verso) 1954. Black ink on manila paper. Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

He added that the drawings reflected that Warhol was an artist “who put sexuality at the centre of his work from day one”: “He was challenging the world to see things differently and he wasn’t successful at it in the 1950s because people weren’t ready for it.”

In 1952, Warhol approached the Tanager Gallery, an artists’ co-op in New York. One of them, Joe Groell, remembered his pictures of boys kissing: “[They] weren’t anything we wanted the gallery to be associated with.” He told Warhol the same thing.

Unknown Male. 1950s Black ballpoint on manila paper 16 7/8 x 14 inches.
Unknown Male. 1950s Black ballpoint on manila paper. Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

In 1959, Warhol tried again, approaching Philip Pearlstein, a former roommate, who had himself shown at the Tanager. But still no luck. Pearlstein remembered being unable to persuade the gallery to show drawings of young men “with their tongues in each other’s mouth”.

Hermann said: “These drawings point to the universality of emotions … [In the past], these have been diminished as being homoerotic art as opposed to depictions of love, sex and desire …

“This book will highlight work that was not given much traction during the homophobic 1950s. I’m really proud that the foundation that was established by Warhol, and which has donated over $200m to supporting artists, has for decades tirelessly made sure that marginalised voices can be heard. To me, it’s a terrific parallel.”

Andy Warhol with Nico (right) in New York, 1966.
Andy Warhol with Nico (right) in New York, 1966. Photograph: Adam Ritchie/Redferns


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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