"And then He was a She"
An exhibition of paintings by award-winning British artist Sadie Lee. The paintings are realistic and compelling studies of the Warhol drag queen Holly Woodlawn, who passed away in December 2015.
Premiered in 2007 at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition toured to The Drill Hall London, Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool and the Schwules Museum in Berlin. In 2009, the painting ‘Holly Woodlawn Dressing II’ was shown as part of the group show sh[OUT!] at Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art alongside works by David Hockney, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Grayson Perry.
Immortalised in Lou Reed’s seminal hit Walk on the Wild Side, an homage to the Drag Queens and Junkies of New York’s underground scene, Holly Woodlawn is the first character we meet in the song:“Holly came from Miami, F.L.A., hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A…She says ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…’Walk on the Wild Side Lou Reed (1972).
Holly Woodlawn was an actor and member of Andy Warhol's ‘Factory’ inner circle. Along with Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Holly was one of the notorious drag queen ‘Superstars’. Heralded as the surprise star of the 1970 cult film Trash. Her powerful performance, described by Trash's director Paul Morrissey as 'volcano-like', prompted a petition for an Oscar nomination.
As a mark of respect, she was mentioned at the Oscars in 2016 in the obituary segment, alongside Leonard Nimoy, Omar Sharif and David Bowie.
Holly was born Harold Ajzenberg in Puerto Rico, 1946. She took the name ‘Holly’ after the gamine heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Upon meeting, the book’s author, Truman Capote, described Holly Woodlawn as ‘The Face of the Seventies.’ Holly chose the surname ‘Woodlawn’ as an ironic nod to the salubrious Los Angeles cemetery, that she (jokingly) claims to be an heiress of. Photographed by some of the greats including Richard Avedon, as she turned 60, she was the subject of a series of realistic and graphic traditional oil paintings by Sadie Lee.
Sadie Lee is known for her realistic oil paintings of real people. Her exhibition ‘A Dying Art: Ladies of Burlesque’, a series of portraits of former Burlesque stars, when they were elderly and retired, was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 1997 before touring the U.K. for a year.In October 2006 Sadie Lee spent every day for a week in Holly’s apartment in Los Angeles making studies
spent every day for a week in Holly’s apartment in Los Angeles making studies Given unprecedented access, Lee's paintings reveal Holly in her most natural and (almost) naked state, in various stages of getting dressed in the outfit she would wear for public appearances.
Holly was very much a part of the creative process and while some of the images are unflinchingly honest (one of the largest paintings shows her with the walking frame she later relied on) they were posed and created with Holly’s knowledge and full cooperation.
Lee has stated that it was not her intention to present Holly as a tragic figure, but to make a true record of a complex individual. Holly was a celebrated icon who, despite life's difficulties and advancing years, would exude infectious optimism and a genuine love of life. Lee’s paintings were made with absolute respect for the subject.
As they worked together on the poses, Holly chatted about the Warhol days, the ups and the downs, and Lee recorded their dialogue, Warhol-like, on a cassette player in the middle of the room. This taped conversation is also included in the exhibition, on headphones to accompany the paintings.
For Lee, painting Holly Woodlawn started out as a celebration of a celebrity figure known mostly through legend and anecdote. As the artist came to know Holly better, the paintings became more a study of the representation of the ageing body, and the ambiguity of gender. Although referring to herself as ‘She’, Holly was born with a male body.
She was very supportive of the Trans community and her last wish was to establish a legacy in her name for youth at risk. In accordance with her wishes, her estate has established the Holly Woodlawn Memorial Fund for Transgender Youth at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The paintings show Holly in all her incarnations, with and without make-up, frock and the adornments of outward femininity. But they do not simply show Holly as a man cosmetically turning into a woman. For her, ‘male’ and ‘female’ were not fixed states, they weren’t important. Above all, what she was, was a Superstar.
AND THEN HE WAS A SHE is complemented by research material gathered together by Sadie Lee including voice recordings and rare short film footage of Holly Woodlawn.
Sadie Lee's work won a BP Travel Award (1996) and was commended in the BP Portrait Award (1998). Solo exhibitions include Don't Look, Museum of Modern Art, Slovenia (1998), A Dying Art: Ladies of the Burlesque, National Portrait Gallery and touring (1997) and Venus Envy, Manchester Art Gallery (1994).
Group shows include Unladylike, East West Gallery, London (2005), Art For Equality – I.C.A., London (1996) Hello Sailor - Liverpool Biennial 2004 and BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery (1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002)