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At a pair of four-for-a-quarter photo booths near Times Square, Andy Warhol plied art collector Ethel Scull with jokes, telling her, “Now start smiling and talking, this is costing me money.” Scull turned on the charm, posing playfully—from sultry to somber, and with and without dark sunglasses—until the machines spit out more than 300 glamorous black-and-white photos.
Scull’s husband had hired Warhol to paint Ethel’s likeness as a present for her 42nd birthday. A year earlier, the artist made a series of silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe, all based on the same publicity photograph for the film Niagara, and Scull wanted Warhol to give his wife the “Marilyn treatment.” Created in 1963, Ethel Scull 36 Times—measuring 12 feet wide and composed of 36 screen prints, each on a separate, vibrant canvas—was the Pop artist’s first commissioned portrait, a practice that evolved into a main source of income in the 1970s.
To begin his paintings, Warhol sent source images—in this case, 35 taken in the photo booth—to a lab to be enlarged and transferred to an acetate, a photographic negative. He often altered the acetates by drawing on them or cutting them before applying them as stencils for his silkscreens.
The acetates provide a unique window into Warhol’s creative decision-making. “This editing process lends history to the artworks. It gives us a glimpse into Warhol’s process—seeing his personal hand and what he was thinking,” says Matt Gray, a project cataloger for The Andy Warhol Museum.
At the request of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Gray and a small team of collections colleagues are currently cataloging and photographing the thousands of acetates in the museum’s collection. It’s research for the next volume of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, a massive project by the foundation to document Warhol’s complete works. But with many of the acetates being viewed for the first time in 25 years, there’s little doubt that the process will also boost other Warhol scholarship.
The largest negatives, measuring more than 8 feet long, are packaged in rolls, which sometimes include a few surprises stuffed inside, such as the acetate for Warhol’s 1963 work Hospital, part of his Death and Disaster series. “When they were packing up Warhol’s studio, there were so many things to track, it’s not surprising that a few things were not written down,” Gray says. “Surprises add to the fun.”
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