When Paige Powell left Portland in 1980 for New York City with the dream of working at Interview magazine, she didn't even know that Andy Warhol was behind the publication. When she got there, she got a job offer from another iconic New York artist—Woody Allen. However, Powell stuck with Interview, and it's shaped everything else that's happened to her.
"I picked Interview because that job started earlier," she says, "and I figured if that didn't work, I could do the other one later."
The fifth-generation Oregonian fell into Warhol's inner circle and spent the next two decades documenting New York City's most intimate art parties through her camera lens and curating elite shows in her Manhattan apartment. She ended up dating influential artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a fatal heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27.
Powell returned to Oregon in 1994, but her photo archives sat untouched in boxes for two decades. With the help of a friend, Pink Martini musician Thomas Lauderdale, she finally sorted through them for a show called The Ride, which opens at the Portland Art Museum on Nov. 4. The show, featuring personal camcorder-shot videos of Powell and Warhol and intimate photos of Basquiat, will be among the city's most compelling art shows of the season.
WW: How did you get into that niche arts scene in New York City?
Paige Powell: Through Interview and Andy [Warhol]. At the time, there weren't cellphones to call or any job postings, but I went to New York to work at Interview before I even knew that Andy was behind it. So I knocked on the studio door—it was a bulletproof door with a tiny bulletproof window because Andy had been shot a decade before—and one of Andy's techs actually let me in.
They were interested in me because no one there had been to Portland or met anyone from Portland. I was a fascinating creature to them. They needed an ad salesperson, and I told them that when I worked at the Washington Park Zoo [now the Oregon Zoo] in the chimp enrichment program, we'd been very successful selling elephant dung for fertilizer. They figured that if I could sell dung, I could sell ads for Interview.
Working there reminded me of the zoo. It was casual and we were like family. You had to be careful when you walked to the kitchen not to spill your coffee, because Andy's work was all over the floor, his portraits and art lying everywhere.
When did the intimate art parties and the work with Warhol start?
Interview hosted get-togethers in the lunchroom with people like the North American director of Hasselblad cameras, editors for Vanity Fair and Bianca Jagger. So I started using Andy kind of as bait for selling ads, and that's when we got close. We lived right by each other, and I started doing some photography. Then we worked closely on art projects together.
One of your more famous photographs shows Andy and Jean-Michel Basquiat side by side, and you're credited with bringing them together. What was it like to witness those two icons as friends?
I dated Jean-Michel on and off from 1983 to 1984, mainly off because of the drugs. And the two met at a gathering I had. Andy was afraid of Jean-Michel because he was afraid of anyone who did drugs. But they did a portrait exchange. Jean-Michel was so enamored of Andy that Andy agreed to come in and do a portrait, but they didn't talk. As a thank you, Jean-Michel made a portrait and took it to Andy, I think while the paint was still wet. It didn't just have Andy in it, Jean-Michel painted himself into it, too.
But Jean-Michel dropped Andy in '85 because of something printed in The New York Times that said he was too influenced by Andy, and Jean-Michel was young, had some paranoia and was insecure. That was really hurtful to Andy. They never patched it up.
Why do you think those artists are still relevant?
Andy will always be relevant. When I knew him, he was going through a quiescent period. I think he was more reclusive—he loved taking food to the homeless on holidays, he was becoming a vegetarian, he went out to feed the pigeons and got concerned about endangered species. He was tired of portraits and wanted to get into other mediums, but portraits were the moneymaker for the office. But his work doesn't get outdated. He was pre-Instagram, and the new generation wants analog.
How was it returning to Portland's art scene from New York after they both died?
I moved back to the Oregon Coast in '94 and to Portland in '97. Animals are my real priority in life, way above art even, so I work a lot for animal activism. But I've been curating art for hotels, like the 750-room Lexington hotel in New York and the Nines [in Portland], and I worked with the Pearl Arts Foundation on its site-specific installations around the city.
Before, there were a few big, seminal galleries like Mary Beebe's and Bill Jamison's and the Fountain Gallery. Jamison was a very special soul who really cared about the artists, and we had the most fun parties. Now I love all the little pop-up galleries. My favorite new place is an old house in Northeast, Surplus Space—it's basically a house that a hoarder used to live in, and they've turned it into this special little gallery.
Describe your new show at PAM and why you finally decided to go through your archives to put it together?
I'd shipped all my boxes of photos and film on a Mayflower to Oregon, but they hadn't even been opened. It wouldn't all fit into the closets and cabinets and garage. It was overwhelming, so my friend Thomas Lauderdale came over, loaded it all up in the Pink Martini truck and took it to his huge loft, where we started going through it. It's still not completely archived, due to resources, and it'll probably take another year and a half or two at this rate.
The show is something I wanted to do in New York. It's these huge projected photographs and videos that cover all the walls and the ceiling. They show Jean-Michel in a limousine as we're driving to Brooklyn. He's smoking a pipe and wearing a tweed hat and leaning into the TV, watching Goldfinger. His face is almost touching the screen, and in the photos you can see Sean Connery. But I wanted to add a film component, so we're playing different videos on each of the screens.
The first is me talking to Andy at the studio about why he isn't going to a party he was hosting that evening. The second is Keith Haring painting this large, white papier-mâché elephant with a boombox blasting, and Andy comes in for a party. The third is Andy just shopping, going to a flea market.
It's all gritty and raw. When I used my camera, I didn't treat it like I was doing anything big. I never used a tripod or flash. So the whole show is a ride—it's my movement through the city over that decade and a half.
SEE IT: Paige Powell's The Ride is at Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., Nov. 5 through Feb 21.