Andy Warhol kissing John Lennon. Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging out at the Factory. A male crotch half-heartedly covered with denim shorts.
With present day New York City defined by social distance and sanitization, legendary photographer Christopher Makos’s exhibition Dirty offers an intimate glimpse into the city’s free-spirited past.
Curated by Daniel Cooney Fine Arts, Dirty showcases 40 vintage photographs, hand-sewn prints, Polaroids and contact sheets spanning Makos’s career. The exhibit offers a lens into the glamorous yet grungy 1970s and 80s art scene in New York City and around the world.
Makos captured warm moments between Andy Warhol, Keith Harring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Liza Minnelli, Iggy Pop and John Lennon, as well as photographing an array of provocative male nudes. An affectionate shot of Keith Harring and Juan Debose at the piers is presented alongside a close-up nude of a male gymnast.
“So much of my photography is photography of the moment,” Makos said. “I often tell people ‘it doesn’t have to be in focus, it doesn’t have to be clear, especially if it captures a moment.’ If you got the moment, it’s an interesting photo.”
While Makos has exhibited his work across the world, from the Tate Modern to the Met, Dirty focuses primarily on his unseen unique prints. Gallerist Daniel Cooney generally presents emerging artists or unseen work from established artists, with Makos falling into the latter category. Cooney was particularly drawn to Makos’s unique vintage prints, from crayon-marked contact sheets to sewn print collages.
The shots are flashy yet intimate; glamorous yet shockingly colloquial. Makos depicts New York’s artistic elite in the happenstance of daily life.
Makos’s title Dirty sums up the whimsical, daring, extravagant life captured in his photographs. Following the advice Man Ray gave to Makos to “obey your instinct,” he chose Dirty to draw people in.
“It’s quick, it’s punchy and it’ll get people’s attention” he explains.
The red bikini-clad male crotch plastered across the gallery opening invitation fostered the same sentiment. In Makos’s words, “Its red and its right in your face. People see that and they say ‘well what is this, what am I gonna see?’”
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Makos moved to New York City after high school and quickly found his way into the city’s punk scene. His first major book White Trash, published in 1977, captured the eccentric art and music world of the 1970s and the fusing of high and low-brow culture.
His work caught the attention of Andy Warhol, and the two artists quickly became friends and collaborators, often working alongside each other in The Factory. Warhol taught Makos the business side of the art world, while Makos introduced Warhol to the medium of photography.
Some of his shots capture ephemeral moments in The Factory, from glamorous extravagance to immense vulnerability. While his delectable male nudes convey the confidence of his subjects, his casual snapshots convey an equal amount of exposure. One vintage print depicts Warhol receiving a massage, offering a drastic contrast between the buff blonde masseuse and Warhol’s frail, back brace-covered frame.
The seamless fusing of fame and intimacy, of glamour and grunge, of confidence and introversion have come to define Makos’s half-century of work. And no exhibition captures these glorious dichotomies more than Dirty.
“They’re all these moments in time that I experienced and they’re these memories. I take pictures because it proves that I have a life, that I actually did these things,” said Makos.
Makos sees these being on display as increasingly relevant in the age of social media.
“A lot of these pictures are people showing off in some way. In today’s world, showing off has never been easier, whether its on Tik Tok or Instagram or to a lesser degree Facebook. So many of these pictures in the exhibition are about showing off and at the time I was that particular vehicle to capture that showing off.
“If you look at contemporary culture, its not as contemporary as one thinks. People have always been interested in showing off, its just that there are more ways and more vehicles to show off,” he continues. “The first show-off vehicle really was the Polaroid SX-70. I was that polaroid camera, I was that Cannon, I was that vehicle, I was that digital social media person at the time to be able to facilitate the show-off.”
Having had recent exhibition openings in Moscow and Munich that he was unable to attend due to the pandemic, Makos is happy to have a show in his home city.
“As a working artist, travel is such a big, important part of my work, whether it’s the taking of the pictures or showing of the pictures, travel has always been part of who I am. Unfortunately, travel is off the radar at the moment.”
Dirty is on display at Daniel Cooney Fine Art from September 17 through November 7. Viewers can contact the gallery at 212-255-8158 or firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a showing.