BY Rhonda Lieberman in Opinion | 18 SEP 23
Featured in
Issue 237

What’s Behind the Artist as Model?

From Andy Warhol to Derek Zoolander, how the catwalk became a space for self-branding

BY Rhonda Lieberman in Opinion | 18 SEP 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 237, Threads

Back when there was an avant-garde, wrote Janet Malcolm: ‘there is something unseemly about young people getting rich. […] And the spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive. The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.’ (The New Yorker, 1994, italics my own).

Malcolm made a distinction that might seem quaint to today’s youths. Now Art is a commodity, period. And Artists and Writers – also commodities – are expected to market, ‘brand’ themselves and self-promote – every two minutes (thanks to social media), or else!

An editor pointed me to ‘the proliferation of artists/writers posing as models today – otherwise characterized as “nodels”’ – a diverse bouquet of creators who ‘modelled for major brands in the past year or so. It seems to be more and more of a thing.’ My thoughts?

Christopher Makos, Andy Modelling Portfolio Makos, 2022. Courtesy: © Christopher Makos and G Editions

If a model is a ‘professionally good-looking person’ as defined by Zoolander (2001) – a ‘nodel’ is a ‘real person’ who does modelly things like runway, editorial and other tasks traditionally performed by pro posers. The moniker implies a kind of edgy, ironic-ish vibe, self-subverting as if too cool to um, actually model, with all the consumerist, lookist baggage that handle might lug along (in its ludicrously capacious tote).

The Fashion paradox has always been to sell a fantasy, traditionally via a delivery system of unforgiving, idealized body types, that is nevertheless convincing enough for the shopper to buy into. As Fashion strives to be more relatable these days – more inclusive, broadening its reach by welcoming more diverse bodies (to buy the merch) – Art, too, is more market-friendly, embracing its status as Luxury Retail. The careerism that Artists were formerly too coy to flaunt is now de rigueur, even a flex. The spectacle of the Artist/Author cross-promoting a major brand – while crass, is less jarring than it might have seemed when Art purported to ‘transcend’, question or otherwise offer an alternative to commercial hustle.

Thus spoke Zoolander: ‘models don’t think for themselves. They do what they’re told.’

The Warhol Factory cranked out ‘superstars’, manufacturing fame, turning everything and nothing from a Liz to a banana to a ‘shadow’ into a ‘Warhol’ in an orgy of branding. We can all thank Andy for levelling the diff between pop and Art.

It takes genius to reflect – rather than merely enable – the vapidity of consumer culture.

Christopher Makos, Andy Modelling Portfolio Makos, 2022. Courtesy: © Christopher Makos and G Editions

Warhol was way ‘up there’ when he fulfilled his lifelong dream and became a ‘male model’ himself, signed with Zoli and Ford. He didn’t want to be a celebrity endorser (like fellow stars, such as Sammy Davis Jr. in those glorious vintage adverts for ‘Man-oh-Manischewitz!’). ‘I think it would be so much fun to go around with my portfolio like all the other kids [...] and [do] runway,’ Warhol pitched Bob Colacello. ‘And catalogue. And editorial. Can’t you see me in those great jean ads, jumping up and down with a bunch of other cute guys?’

‘It was obvious he was being used for his joke value,’ Bob wrote in Holy Terror (1990). After a charity show at Bloomingdale’s, where a mincing, makeup-caked Warhol in clown-wear creeped out the socialites, Bob told him Halston and Victor (Hugo) had made a fool of him.

‘“They did not!” [Andy] yelled. “I looked great! You’re just jealous, Bob, because you’re too short to model.”’

I’m also too short to model. But that didn’t stop me from ‘nodelling’ in the 1990s, for J. Morgan Puett, in her alternative retail space in SoHo, New York, on a runway draped with bolts of fabric to evoke the workroom-in-process. Two live chickens inspired the palette for the season’s collection ‘leghorn’. Yes, I was an OG ‘nodel’ (with Pat Hearn, Jane Pratt and Suzanne Vega): ‘I looked great!’

Christopher Makos, Andy Modelling Portfolio Makos, 2022. Courtesy: © Christopher Makos and G Editions

In Funny Face (1957), Audrey Hepburn is a bookish beatnik who is redeemed by Paris Fashion – its anthem, ‘Think Pink!’, belted out by editress Kay Thompson to her wasp-waisted, nimble staff. The Hollywood classic cheers the triumph of wholesome consumerism over suss philosopher-wolves, the Left Bank lotharios who were out to seduce the naive ectomorph Hepburn. Thanks to Givenchy, the former bookworm morphs into a chic butterfly, slays on the runway and twirls away with fashion photographer Fred Astaire to a Hollywood ending (where presumably, everyone stays thin). This might be the ‘nodel’ urtext.

Today, life imitates Art, and Retail adapts, as diverse, more inclusive ‘nodels’ – models with substance! – ‘do what they’re told’ for Fashion, and for their own brands, too. How fabulous is that?

This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘Nodels, Shmodels’

Main image: Christopher Makos, Andy Modelling Portfolio Makos, 2022. Courtesy: © Christopher Makos and G Editions

Rhonda Lieberman is an essayist and a contributing editor at Artforum. Her book, Pep Talk #7 (Pep Talk, 2018), edited by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, compiles her work since 1989 and will be re-issued in a new edition.