Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Warhol, reframed

Karen Bystedt was a 19-year-old film student when she was given a rare opportunity to photograph pop art icon Warhol. Here, she tells Meadhbh McGrath how she's now turning her photos of Andy into art

Pop idol: Bystedt's original photographs have been reworked in an ongoing collaborative project with international artists, Brayden Bugazzi
Pop idol: Bystedt's original photographs have been reworked in an ongoing collaborative project with international artists, Brayden Bugazzi
Photographer Karen Bystedt. Photo by Svein Bringsdal
Kings by Karen Bystedt and Brad Branson

In 1982, Karen Bystedt, a 19-year-old film student at NYU, cold-called Andy Warhol at the offices of Interview magazine in his New York Factory to ask if she could photograph him. It was a bold move, but Karen says she was determined to get Andy to pose for her book on male models after spotting him in an ad for luxury department store Barney's in GQ magazine. "He was lounging in a beautiful sweater with his crazy white hair, on top of another model. I was like, 'oh my God, I need to get Andy Warhol for this book! He's a model!'" she recalls.

Amazingly, once he heard the roster of other models Karen had on board (including top names from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein underwear campaigns), Andy agreed. "He didn't ask to see [any of my work], and I always thought that was so crazy. I was a student, I hadn't been published. I was 19. I was a very sophisticated, intense 19-year-old but I had basically done nothing," she says, still a bit shocked. "I thought that was just incredible but I think that appealed to him - Andy Warhol was a man who really did support young people. And I was going for it!"

The result was a series of intimate portraits that feature in a collaborative project called the Lost Warhols, which makes its next stop in Dublin's Brown Thomas on October 10.

Like the rest of the world, Karen knew Andy best as an artist, famous for the Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe series. She was also a fixture on the New York clubbing circuit, and frequently saw Andy out and about.

Kings by Karen Bystedt and Brad Branson
Kings by Karen Bystedt and Brad Branson

"I was a club kid and I had seen Andy around, he was everywhere. In the '80s, he was just a social butterfly. I used to go to clubs like Area and Limelight, and I would see Andy often huddled in the corner, watching. That's what he did: he would go and be the voyeur, surrounded by people. He normally wore black, a black turtleneck and Levi's jeans, that was his uniform," she says. Two weeks after their phone conversation, Karen arrived at the third Factory at Union Square, having rented out a Hasselblad camera because she'd heard the photographer of the moment, Robert Mapplethorpe, favoured it over her own Nikon model. "I had to bring in an assistant to load the film because I didn't know how to use the camera," she laughs. She and her assistant were directed to the magazine's boardroom, where Andy was waiting alone, wearing a Perry Ellis suit with knitted tie and a neat wig.

"He had put make-up on himself, and it was that kind that actors wear on stage, that very thick, pancake make-up. I've always been somebody who wanted to make people look as good as possible, and I looked at him and the make-up was very badly put on. I know he did it because he had very large pores, so I had to ask him if I could fix the make-up," she recalls, squealing at the memory. "Honestly, he was so taken aback. I don't think he was used to anyone touching him. I just took a tissue and I smoothed it out as much as I could. He had also done his eyebrows which were really a mess as well, so I was trying to clean up his make-up job, basically.

"I'll never forget it, because he spoke in a very slow, almost childlike way that made him sound like he was a cartoon, but he said, 'Wow, I wish other people would do that'," she says fondly. "I think that was his modelling moment with me, and why he gave me those human, more relaxed poses than he did normally, especially at that time of his life when he was very self-conscious about his looks. He really did want to be a male model and he wanted to be beautiful."

Karen also interviewed him for the book, talking about the clothes he wore and his interests. "I asked him, what's your favourite hobby? And he said, 'Everything I do is a hobby'. I live my life by that," she says. When the book, Not Just Another Pretty Face, was published the following year, Andy came along to the launch party, but it was the last time Karen saw him. He died in 1987.

Karen, meanwhile, went on with her life and with other projects, getting married and travelling the world. In the process, she lost track of the negatives, and it wasn't until 2011 that she says she was "compelled" to find them. Karen had grown restless, so she booked in for a course of spiritual energy work with a Tibetan ex-monk.

"It was unbelievable, I did start to feel reenergised and revitalised. At the time I had stopped watching television but I was reading the Financial Times to get my news - I like the pink paper - and I saw this huge article about Andy Warhol, that one of his paintings had sold for $100 million, and I started to think about him again, which I hadn't done for like 20 years," she explains.

Karen insists she didn't have dollar signs in her eyes when she went hunting down the photos, and even turned down an offer to sell them. She ended up finding 10 of the 36 negatives, in an old corrugated cardboard box filled with termites. "I had them in wax sleeves. There was one strip where they'd eaten through the wax and there was termite poop on them, but the negatives themselves were in fairly good shape," she says.

Working with an archivist at the J Paul Getty Trust, it took four months to restore the negatives - because of their age, they couldn't be washed for fear of damaging them, so they had to be scanned and digitally cleaned, pixel-by-pixel. "I saw that Andy's skin was getting better, because it's basically retouching. Then I made the creative decision to make Andy look as good as possible," Karen explains. "That's why in some of the photos he looks younger. I didn't touch any of his features, but I did clean up his skin, because I always felt like he wanted to be beautiful and these were the modelling pictures, so I just felt it made sense."

Once they were restored, Karen was invited to exhibit at Art Basel, where she put together a pop-up show, and enlisted the artist Peter Tunney for a live installation, in which he painted over one of Karen's photographs. It was the beginning of a greater project, as Karen assembled other artists to "make Andy into the art, kind of like how he made Mao and Marilyn into the art". Since then, The Lost Warhols has exhibited in New York and Los Angeles, and will come to Dublin next week.

Curated by Joe Henry of MQS Gallery, the exhibition will feature works by Raine Hozier Byrne (see panel), Will St Leger, Orla Walsh, Nick Munier, Helen Bullock, Portis Wasp, Stephen Johnston and Peter Tunney. Karen will be collaborating with Leger on a mural of Andy and Jean-Michel Basquiat on the wall of Brown Thomas on Clarendon Street.

Joe reached out to Karen following the show in New York, and she says one of the reasons she agreed to an Irish exhibition was because it would be displayed in a store, where visitors could enjoy unrestricted access to the art works, making it more accessible than a ticketed gallery. "Joe has been choosing the artists and then running them by me. I've been researching their work, so that's how we've been working together. I'm very happy with the direction he's taking," she says.

Now in her 50s and living in Los Angeles, Karen credits that single sitting with Andy in 1982 as defining her career and helping her to make a name for herself in the male-dominated art world.

"I have learned so much [from Andy]. I've learned that it's okay to be different, I've learned that artistic expression is available to anyone, I've learned to see beauty in others, which was something we had in common, I've learned to be brave," she says. "There were many times where I was thinking, why am I doing this? A new opportunity would come and I would pick myself up and keep going. I realise now that you have to work very hard, you have to show up, you have to be passionate and do the work. The universe gives back."

'The Lost Warhols' will be in Brown Thomas Grafton Street from October 10-21, see brownthomas.com


“There isn’t a sinner in the world that doesn’t have a very strong feeling about Warhol”

It's been a challenging year for Raine Hozier-Byrne, the Wicklow-based artist and mother of singer-songwriter Andrew 'Hozier'. In February, Outpost Studios, the space she shared with seven other women artists in Bray, was gutted by a fire, destroying a lifetime's work. "I couldn't tell you the loss. We all lost work, and because I'm the oldest, I've lost 30 years of work," she says with a sigh. "Overnight, they were all gone. I'm starting all over again."

Raine's first series since the fire is for The Lost Warhols, after being invited to contribute by curator Joe Henry, who had come across her work in a collector's house. "Warhol is usually the director, so it's a very interesting project that makes a very engaging image. If you're not interested in contemporary art practice, it's still very engaging, because he is so well-known and his actual image itself is an iconic image," she explains.

Was it intimidating for her to interpret such an iconic image? "Yes and no," she says. "Once you settle into the images you choose to work on, you kind of come at peace with it," she explains, adding that she will be blending two of Karen Bystedt's portraits for her piece. "I'm a fragment artist so I tend to tear up things, put them back together again, reimagine something, put my own spin on it. Once I had that down, I knew where I was going with it. It sits well with you when it's working, and it really doesn't sit well with you when it's not!"

Raine observes that Warhol was a big presence during her art studies, and that she feels a connection to him because they would have been of similar ages. "There isn't a sinner in the world that doesn't have a very strong feeling about Warhol. There's as many people that go 'ah, to heck', that say, 'it's wonderful!'" she laughs. "He was a seminal artist and to this day, he has huge influence on huge amounts of artists. I'm very lucky to be able to take part in this, and I'm thrilled."

Aside from The Lost Warhols, Raine has been kept busy working on the cover of Hozier's highly anticipated second album. "That's a very, very special thing to do. To be able to work with your kids is fantastic, and I was able to work with both of them on this project," she says, referring to Andrew (28) and filmmaker Jon (30). "They're both so talented, you kind of go, how did that happen?"

She adds: "It's a real privilege. If you have kids, there's a stage where they'd nearly rather die than be seen with you, and when you get to this stage where you're actually just seeing each other as other artists, it's an absolute joy. I think the artwork around it kind of reflects that. I can't let too much out of the bag, unfortunately, but it was a blast to do." Jon has directed the video for Nina Cried Power, from Hozier's new EP, and Andrew recently kicked off a tour across the US, which comes to Dublin in December.

"He'll come home for flying visits and please God he'll be home for Christmas," says Raine. "It's a funny aul world with these two lads - mine is very simple in comparison. It's a quiet little existence but it's a great little existence. We're happy out."

Irish Independent

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