After the untimely death of Candy Darling, the first trans woman known to take hormones, the portraits were intended to celebrate this minority community in a flurry of colour and character so typical of Warhol’s work. By bringing together some of New York’s lesser-known drag queens from the Gilded Grape club, the series put the trans community in the unwavering Warhol spotlight and immortalised their valiant self-invention.
However, the series is not only one of Warhol’s most culturally significant, but also one of his most controversial. Despite being commissioned $1 million to produce the paintings in Darling’s legacy, Warhol only paid his sitters $50-100 and kept their identities anonymous. One way to read the series is as an exploitation of this majority Black and Latinx trans community, a community Warhol himself was not part of. Nevertheless, it is the captivating presence of these women that make the portraits, and the reason why they are so evocative today.
During Warhol’s initial Polaroid photoshoot for Ladies and Gentlemen, some of the models signed off their photograph, while a number of them were more well-known members of the gay and trans scene in New York. Today, we know the identities of thirteen of the fourteen women depicted. They are: Marsha P. Johnson, Alphanso Panell, Iris, Wilhelmina Ross, Broadway, Easha McCleary, Helen/Harry Morales, Ivette, Kim, Lurdes, Michele Long, Monique and Vicki Peters. Here is a look at some of the women in the print collection:
The most renowned sitter for the series is Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a figure now regarded as one of the key figures in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Throughout her life, Johnson staunchly fought for LGBTQ+ rights, co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R) with Sylvia Rivera. Warhol captured the champion of gay and trans rights in a joyful moment, as she airily gazed over her shoulder laughing. The superimposed block of yellow accentuates her coiffed wig, while the negative space left by the maroon-brown draws immediate attention to her beaming smile. Johnson, in a 1979 interview, pointed out how ironic it was that her portrait was on sale for thousands of dollars while she struggled to pay rent, and had been such a feeble fee by Warhol at the time.
Panell was clearly one of Warhol’s favourite models in the series, making 60 paintings from the 7 initial Polaroids he snapped of her. While not much is known about her, Warhol has captured her ‘gentle and kind’ character through his more muted colour palette. A flash of yellow appears over Panell’s eye, making her gaze the buoyant focal point of the portrait. While Panell appears here without a wig, Warhol’s daub of rosy-red over her lips makes clear her gender non-conformity.
Very little is known of Iris, and she did not sign her Polaroids, but Warhol has captured her in true superstar style here. Her Hollywood-starlet curled wig is framed by Warhol’s expressive application of pink, giving her a very Marilyn Monroe appearance – one of Warhol’s favourite American icons. The purples painted around her closed eyelids perhaps echoes the makeup executed by Gigi Williams during the original shoot, and mimics the artful makeup of drag.
Ross was Warhol’s most painted subject of the series and features in 73 of the paintings. A star of Jimmy Camicia’s drag theatre company, Ross was one of the more renowned and recognisable subjects of the series. In this particular work, Ross dramatically stares out to the viewer beneath her showy hat and reveals her theatrical background.
While Broadway signed one of her Polaroids, not much is known about her. With her name and Warhol’s artful overlaying of block colour however, we get a sense of her show-business persona as she coyly looks over her shoulder. The print's lively application of bright yellow to her teal-green blouse alludes to the flamboyant costuming of drag, and the exciting act of self-invention.
Warhol almost doubled the number of canvases Anselmino’s commission required, showing a clear attachment to these masters of self-invention and non-conformity. When compared with his 1985 series Reigning Queens, which depicted the four queens regent at the time, it is clear to see that the trans women of Ladies and Gentlemen were a subject he was much more inspired by. This print of Queen Elizabeth I transforms the reigning monarch of England into a Warhol superstar; her iconic portrait superimposed with blocks of colour and her lips playfully filled in with an uncharacteristic red.
However, Warhol’s application of colour in this series is much more demure than Ladies and Gentlemen. Maybe this is out of respect for the regal status of his subject, or maybe it is because Warhol found the women of Ladies and Gentlemen far more inspirational. These women had sacrificed so much to define their own identities, and live as their authentic selves, something Warhol himself perhaps envied, given that he had kept his own sexuality under wraps. Even though there was definitely an imbalance of power and money in its creation, Ladies and Gentlemen is one of Warhol’s most revealing and poignant series and reflect his fascination with queer self-fashioning and ingenuity.