"Here!” Paige Powell thrusts a well-thumbed, faded photograph into my hands: a close-up snap of Andy Warhol, eyes blurred behind oversize glasses. She presses another on me: Jean-Michel Basquiat on a beach in Hawaii. She’s rifling though the steel file cabinets in the downtown loft belonging to Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale.
This is where she keeps her collection of photos (long story), and now they’re emerging at a clip: Street artist Keith Haring. Writer Fran Lebowitz. Alba Clemente, who, in the words of one writer, “has been painted by—or partied with—just about any artist of note in the last 40 years.” And—oh look here, Warhol with Miles Davis. “I shouldn’t be allowed near this,” Powell says with a laugh as she piles them on the drawer lip, all out of sequence, Warhol face down on Warhol.
In all, the photographer, curator, and onetime New York scenester’s collection of about 10,000 personal photos and videos forms an intimate chronicle of the late-20th-century NYC arts scene at its apex. They’re affectionate glimpses of subjects clearly at ease with the person behind the lens.
This month, they form a new exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, The Ride. But before the collection became an art show, it languished in “badly stored” boxes for more than a decade after Powell moved from New York—where she worked at Warhol’s Interview magazine from 1981 to 1994—back to her home state, Oregon. “So many people died of AIDS and drug overdoses,” she says about that time. “It was just very hard for me to look at it. So I just didn’t.”
Lauderdale convinced her otherwise, and The Ride is the result. Its centerpiece is a video installation showing never-before-seen footage of Warhol and Haring, set within an image of Basquiat.
Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988, features frequently in Powell’s collection: the two dated “off and on,” and it was Powell who helped cement Basquiat’s relationship with Warhol, describing herself as the catalyst for the friendship. The exhibit also re-creates a show Powell mounted in 1984 at a Manhattan art bar called Beulah Land, updated with photos from the three decades since its original incarnation. “The last thing I wanted was a fossil,” she says.
For Powell, the ride continues: she even takes my picture as we talk. So what did Warhol teach her about taking photos? She smiles, as she disappears behind the lens. “Everything!”