Andy Warhol’s balloons float like silver clouds through the rotunda of the Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle. Warhol’s Factory had silver walls – silver like the glass on a disco ball, or like David Bowie’s wig when he played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat. Silver is the colour of glam; Bowie and Warhol are its heroes. In an interview, Darren Pih, the curator of the exhibition Glam! The Performance of Style, which travelled to Frankfurt from the Tate Modern Liverpool, and will next move on to the Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, described glam as ‘a certain sensibility, a stance, a way of thinking about identity. An extravagant style, very artificial and androgynous. Several things come together in glam: art, fashion and music, like with Roxy Music, the prototypical art school band.’
In the UK, glam’s breeding ground was art school, which offered economic and creative freedom even for the less moneyed. In the USA, by contrast, glam was produced in the Factory. The oldest works in this show are Warhol’s fashion illustrations, such as the 1950 works Eight Shoes and Four Shoe Tips. Elsewhere, Warhol is seen in photos with the Velvet Underground, then with Bowie, who is visiting the Factory. ‘I don’t like your hair, but I like your shoes,’ Warhol allegedly said – and Bowie got a haircut right away.
Bowie as Ziggy, Bowie as Aladdin Sane, Marc Bolan in a glitter suit with stardust on his cheeks, Brian Ferry in gold lamé, Brian Eno with a feather boa – glam was one big masked ball. Coexisting peacefully within the very confined, predominantly black-and-silver Schirn space are Cindy Sherman and BRAVO, Richard Hamilton and nameless teenagers in washed-out The Osmonds T-shirts – the large-scale production next to the fan souvenir, the daring feat beside the found object. All the Young Dudes. For Pih, this exhibition documents a precursor to the identity debates of the 1990s. Katharina Sieverding’s Transformer (1973), for example, problematizes the dichotomy of masculine and feminine, the ambivalence of gender. In this large-scale video installation, the artist’s face morphs into that of her male partner, Klaus Mettig. According to Pih, what made glam so powerful was ‘the discovery that identity can be continually constructed, that you can reinvent yourself in art.’
Today self-reinvention is imperative. If you don’t reinvent yourself every fifteen minutes, you lose touch. But in the 1970s – the exhibition’s historic core – this was still just a promise. And in glam, as the canonical telling goes, the sexual cards in particular were re-shuffled. Along with Sieverding’s work, Evelyne Axell’s Angela Davis II (1972) and Cary Loren’s 1975 Niagara series also treat this key element of glam. Pop stars of the time – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bowie – flirted with bisexuality. Reed, presented in the exhibition via album covers and photographs, strutted his own ‘transformer’ down the catwalk on the wild side. Dave Hickey writes of a ‘rhetoric of deniable disclosure’ at work in glam – and Bowie and Reed famously and very resoundingly retracted their stance shortly thereafter.
Also on display is Peter Hujar’s emblematic photo of Warhol superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed (Candy Darling on her Deathbed, 1974). For Pih, Hujar’s photo: ‘demonstrates why glam is so significant as a performance of style. Candy Darling is on her – or his – deathbed, and she’s still performing. Performance never ends.’ This could have been taken as an opportunity to present the current heirs of glam: after all, Antony Hegarty sang Candy Says with Lou Reed and used Hujar’s photo of Candy for the cover of his album I Am a Bird Now (2005). Hegarty has also – like Lou Reed – repeatedly made reference to Jack Smith, whose 1963 films Normal Love and Flaming Creatures complicates gender boundaries (Smith is represented in the Glam! exhibition only by a series of prints). But the show ends with the 1970s: no Antony, no 21st century queer pop.
Apropos queer: I speak from experience when I say that these days, if you ask Lou Reed – who claims to have discovered Hegarty – about queer elements in his own art, he’ll threaten to beat you up. This is where the ‘rhetoric of deniable disclosure’ leaves a bland aftertaste. Its utopian potential feels a bit dated once you realize that almost all the stars of glam rock were biological men who strategically retreated into heterosexuality after their brief flirtation with androgyny. Such contradictions are activated because the exhibition shows glam as a societal mass phenomenon, a genre-defying mix of high art and low life – and because we now know how Bowie’s and Reed’s pop lives went on, including their lows. The fan’s perspective frequently comes into play through the display of pop magazines, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. The museum thus shows the plausibility of Pih’s interpretation of glam as a ‘societal re-tuning’, that is, a catalyst for personal and social transformation. Glam (rock) was a mass phenomenon that crossed class lines; its influence reached provincial backwaters; it was accessible.
Translated by Jane Yager