This acclaimed series of final portraits was first unveiled by Anthony d'Offay at his London gallery in July 1986, the first and only show in Warhol's career dedicated to the theme of self-portraiture. The gallerist recalls the genesis of the series: "I realised two things: first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th century, and secondly that it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait. A week later I visited Warhol in New York and suggested to him an exhibition of new self-portraits. A month later he had a series of images to show me in all of which he was wearing the now famous 'fright wig'. One of the images not only had a demonic aspect but reminded me more of a death mask. I felt it was tempting fate to choose this image, so we settled instead on a self-portrait with a hypnotic intensity." (Anthony d'Offay cited in Exh. Cat., Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, Kunstverein St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum, 2004, p. 131) This remarkable image became the anchor for one of his greatest exhibitions in a commercial gallery. Today, works from this landmark exhibition grace the collections of Tate, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Warhol made the first self-portrait of his mature career in 1963, in which his appearance is masked by dark glasses and the graininess of the then new screen-printing process, followed by a subsequent small series in 1964, similarly based on a photo-booth source photograph. The emergence of the Self-Portraits charted a turning point for Warhol: now, among the images of the rich and famous, he became an icon in his own visual repertoire. By 1966, the year of his third great series of self-images, he was a star in his own right; an artist, musician and increasingly acclaimed film maker whose constructed public persona was almost as famous as his artistic production. Propelled into the public limelight, the world now bestowed on him the same degree of celebrity status that he found so intriguing and captivating in those that he chose to depict. In his archetypal 1966 portraits, at once iconic and iconoclastic, Warhol succeeded in capturing on canvas the most alluring and elusive star in his firmament of celebrity: himself. It was not until twenty years later, in the series to which the present work belongs, that Warhol would find an equivalently powerful self-image. While in the 1960s, Warhol was an aloof commentator on the consumer culture that was sweeping through an economically prosperous America, by the time of the present work he and his art had become synonymous with contemporary American culture itself. Such was his fame and the success of his artistic vision that it shaped the worlds of art, fashion, film and the media throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In his last Self-Portraits, the ever insightful commentator packages and presents himself as a product to be consumed by the machinery of the commodity culture which he himself helped to define.
While the 1963 and 1964 Self-Portraits were based on a photo-mat strip of photographs, in the 1986 series Warhol used a Polaroid photograph as his source image, a technique which he had refined in his portraiture throughout the 1970s. Wearing a black turtle-neck sweater and one of his many elaborate wigs, in his diaries Warhol recalled the making of the image: "At the office Sam tried to take pictures of me that I needed to work from for the self-portraits for the English show, and I'd done my hair in curlers and everything and he just couldn't get it right." (the artist cited in Jennifer Higgie, 'Andy Warhol' in Frieze, 5th September 1996) Comparing the final canvases to the original image, it is evident that Warhol chose the image in which his top best covered his neck. In this way, Warhol made his body disappear entirely, so that his severed head hovers in space.
Here more than in any other of his Self-Portraits, Warhol tackled the challenge of self-depiction with an unrivalled and up-close theatricality, presenting an image both of Warhol the man and Warhol the artistic phenomenon. As David Bourdon observed, "Warhol's visage by this time was, of course, almost totally invented: the hair belonged to one of dozens of wigs, the skin had been dermatologically transformed and constantly taughtened through the use of astringents, and the sunken cheeks had been smoothed out with collagen injections." (David Bourdon, Andy Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 402) Warhol exposed his starkly isolated, distinctive appearance to our sharp scrutiny in unparalleled photographic detail. His last Self-Portrait catalogued the transformation in his ageing features in dialogue with the technical transformation in his art from maverick to master. Using his face as an arena for technical and compositional experimentation, by now Warhol had harnessed and honed to sheer perfection the silkscreen process which he had introduced to fine art practice in the early 1960s. While the 1966 Self-Portraits are characterized by often rough printing and serendipitous outcomes, here the image is of such controlled clarity that it resounds in our memory even when we cease to look. The silkscreen captures every minutiae and contour of Warhol's features, from his sunken cheeks, the slight jowls around his pursed lip and that incredibly penetrating stare. If Warhol's credo was the seductive surface, here it reaches its apogee, in the flawlessly slick, black, even lamina of ink which lends the works a surface unity worthy of the clean, flat surfaces predicated by Minimalism. Unlike his works from the 1970s which had thick, brushy acrylic surfaces, here Warhol returned to the ineluctable flatness of the picture plane.
Warhol had an obsessive preoccupation with sudden death, even before Valerie Solanas entered the Factory and shot him, nearly killing him, on June 3rd, 1968. This morbid fascination is openly reflected in his work, especially in the often gruesome Death and Disaster and Electric Chair series. Here, the mysterious image of the artist's gaunt features reflects this lifelong fascination with the transience of life, and seems to convey an awareness of his own impending death. While there is no way that Warhol could have known what fate had in store for him, there is an almost tangible sense of the ageing artist confronting his own mortality. As John Caldwell noted of Warhol's last series, "The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness. Perhaps this comes in part from the fact that the artist's neck is invisible, or it may derive from the oddly lit nimbus of hair that seems posed forever over his head. Certainly, the portrait derives part of its power from the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon." (John Caldwell, "A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie," Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January - February 1987, p. 9)
Despite their colors and high-keyed tonality, these are stark faces, moribund like a spectral head. Set against the inky black background, Warhol's disembodied head takes on the resemblance of a skull, the consummate vanitas motif, a reminder of the ubiquity of life and death. Warhol had already explored this motif of the memento mori, first in a series of Skulls from 1976 and subsequently in a small series of self-portraits with a skull made two years later when the artist was fifty. In the present series, however, Warhol himself becomes the vanitas object. The heightened contrast emphasizes the bone structure of the skull below the taut skin. As Warhol's friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled, the public's immediate reaction to these works when they were exhibited was one of shock, with many viewers leaving the show deeply moved: “Some spectators interpreted the pictures as a memento mori, an unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality.” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 402)
Ever since the Ethel Scull commission in 1963, Warhol understood the power of working in multi-panel, multicolored, repetitive compositions, which allowed him to exploit the given image to its limit. In his portraiture, this allowed him to explore the subtle nuances and permutations of the sitter, creating extra sensitivity through repetition. This is how he chose to exhibit his works - as a series - from the time of his breakthrough Campbell's Soup exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 onwards. Yet it is rare today to find such series still intact, rendering the present group exceptional. The presence of the repeated image here further rarefies an already iconic portrait of the artist. Indeed the disembodied heads can fuse to create a single image, as our eye scans from one to the other, never resting as no single head dominates. By repeating his self-representation, Warhol revealed in these pictures a fractured self-image where unity only exists in multiplicity. Through mechanical reproduction and anonymous facture, Warhol's multiple Self-Portraits contradict the genre's ideal of intimate self-expression; yet in fact, in harnessing the technique of the screen-print to such unbridled international success, the resulting image is anything but anonymous. On the contrary, Warhol's image is here packaged and presented in his own instantly recognizable brand of Pop, on par with his 1960s portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Liz Taylor.
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