Visual Arts

Warhol and Ulmann: A marriage that could be made only in a museum

UK Art Museum pairs Andy Warhol and Doris Ulmann

University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner and curator Janie Welker talk about why they paired work of early 20th century photographer Doris Ulmann with late century pop icon Andy Warhol.
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University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner and curator Janie Welker talk about why they paired work of early 20th century photographer Doris Ulmann with late century pop icon Andy Warhol.

The women are side by side in photographs on a wall in the University of Kentucky Art Museum.

They both are looking down and to the right, as we observe them, in black-and-white images that are roughly the same size. But that’s where the similarities end.

Writer and early-20th century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an image of seriousness, bundled in a coat and hat and reading a book. Lady Anne Lambton, daughter of British aristocracy and a New York socialite, is captured in a swirl, wearing a party dress with a drink and cigarette in hand. She’s having a ball.

They aren’t two images you would presume to put together, but they ultimately work in tandem, which is what the museum was going for when it married the work of early 20th century photographer Doris Ulmann with late 20th century artist and pop culture icon Andy Warhol.

The two photographers worked in very different methods, and different settings and times. But their works are now joined in the museum’s main gallery in the exhibit “Face Value: Photographs by Doris Ulmann and Andy Warhol.” The idea for the exhibit began soon after museum director Stuart Horodner arrived at UK in 2014, and curator Janie Welker started orienting him to the work of Ulmann, who was born, raised and educated in New York, where she documented some of the leaders of her day, but who eventually came to Appalachia and Kentucky, documenting modest and vanishing cultures.

The museum has 508 photographs by Ulmann in its permanent collection, and in 2001, the University Press of Kentucky published a biography, “The Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann” by Philip Walker Jacobs. But the museum had never presented an exhibit of Ulmann’s work.

“I said, ‘I think we should do an Ulmann show;’ there’s just no way around it,” Horodner says. “ But like all things, when? And with what spirit? The photographs run a really wide range of contents.”

And there were other questions, he said: “How do we make it speak to something beyond the historical? Is there some other conversation? Is there another way we could go?”

Enter Warhol, another photographer whom the museum has collected, with 123 of his photographs.

“I had this crazy inkling: Let’s look at the Warhol portraits, because there may be some similarities, but also radical departures,” Horodner says.

Welker says, “The thing that was interesting to both of us is there’s so much common ground.”

Take the side-by-side ladies. But observers also can draw similarities in Ulmann’s view of men in the courthouse square in Hazard and Warhol’s take on revelers on Fire Island, half a century later. Ulmann and Warhol both engaged in formal and informal portraiture. Ulmann’s informal shots still somehow are exquisitely posed, while Warhol’s have an abandon, often exemplified by negative space.

Horodner says that visitors wanting to explore further contrasts and similarities in photography of people can go upstairs and take in the Andrea Modica exhibit “Best Friends,” portraits of pairs of high school students in the United States and Europe, and even the figure show “Embodied,” figure works from the museum’s collection.

And “Face Value,” also completely drawn from UK’s holdings, demonstrates another goal since Horodner took the reins at the museum: showing the museum’s signature, extensive photography collection.

“It is a pretty extraordinary collection for the museum,” Welker says. “I’m really happy we’re getting more photography out.”

Follow Rich Copley on Facebook and Twitter, @copiousnotes.

If you go

“Face Value: Photographs by Doris Ulmann and Andy Warhol”

When: Through April 23

Gallery hours: 10 a.m-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat., Sun., closed Mondays and UK holidays.

Where: University of Kentucky Art Museum in the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Admission: Free

Call: 859-257-5716

Online: Finearts.uky.edu/art-museum

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