'Drag queens are reminders that some stars still aren't just like you and me' and they too can strive for the glamour and beauty epitomized by Marilyn and Liz - everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame' (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 55).
Exuding glamour and mimicking the celebrity aura embodied in his famous portraits of the 1960s, Andy Warhol's Ladies and Gentlemen is a powerfully expressive work depicting the drag queen Alphanso Panell. With her head resting elegantly upon a carefully manicured hand, the sitter gazes at us with eyes beautifully accentuated with black mascara. Rendered in broad, gestured swathes of acrylic paint, Warhol mirrors the vibrant character and glamorous makeup of his sitter in electric blue, bright green and brown. Against the muted mustard background, the sumptuously rendered drag queen seems to jumps off the surface of the canvas, and engages directly with the viewer. Commissioned by Turin-based art dealer Luciano Anselmino, the series Ladies and Gentlemen was exhibited only once during Warhol's lifetime at the Palazzo di Diamante in Ferrara, Italy in 1975.
Turning his attention to the drag queens of New York City's party scene, Warhol's iconic Ladies and Gentlemen series, 1974- 1975, is rooted in the legacy of his iconic paintings of female stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor - figures held up as the epitome of beauty and glamour in our culture. In 1975, Bob Colacello, the future editor of Warhol's Interview magazine, went to the night club Gilded Grape in Greenwich Village to recruit a number of willing black and Hispanic drag queens willing to pose for Warhol. In a sense, therefore, the Ladies and Gentlemen series also testifies to Warhol's interest in issues of race in America, initially explored in the Race Riot images of 1963 and here pursued with a similarly cool, detached Pop approach. Rather than appropriating publicity images, however, Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen were sourced using in-person Polaroid snapshots in the same vein as his commissioned portraits. This proximity to his sitters allowed him a more nuanced degree of creative control, which in this case, he channelled into having the drag queens 'vogue' in a variety of expressions from femme-fatale to coquette. After enlarging the images for the silk screening process, Warhol took a more gestured, at times even impasto, approach to his colour application, allowing the paint a life of its own. This proximity to the subject creates a tension between the artifice of the gender façade and the considered expression of the sitter, which belies an underlying vulnerability.
And yet, by treating these drag queens with the same sort of impersonal distance with which he approaches all his subjects, Warhol presents their aspiration for beauty and glamour without judgment. Ever the mirror of contemporary life, Warhol does not 'flatter' his subjects by depicting them as though they really are women. Between the punning title and the deliberate inclusion of 'tells' such as their hands, Warhol does not hide the fact that these drag queens are in fact men. As Warhol philosophised, 'among other things, drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women still actually want to be. Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal movie star womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection' (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 54).