Warhol’s first self-portraits were made between 1963-64, taking photo-booth images as their sources. By wearing dark glasses and a trench coat in the first works he contributed to a burgeoning persona based on enigma, and his crude mastery of the silkscreen process at this point added further to the levels of visual concealment. Whilst subsequent portraits were made of his own volition, Warhol’s initial turn to himself as a subject was the result of a commission from the collector Ethel Scull. Counter to the idealized view of an introspective and self-fascinated artist, Warhol’s self-portraiture from its genesis was a means of performing for a public other. By 1966 Warhol began his third great series of self-images, at which point he was a verified star of the art world. Here a pensive hand-to-mouth pose was adopted but the extreme use of shadow and dramatic color blocking similarly prevents the viewer from any access to his emotional character; the artist remains distant and aloof.
Much like the first self-portraits, the final Fright Wig paintings also came from a commission, in this instance from London gallerist Anthony d'Offay on his conviction that "Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th century,” and that “it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait.” After travelling to New York to meet Warhol, d'Offay recounts, “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." (Anthony d'Offay cited in Exh. Cat., Kunstverein St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, 2004, p. 131) The resultant show, of which the present work was a part, became the only exhibition exclusively to focus on Warhol’s self-portraiture in his life time, highlighting the artist’s revived fascination with himself as a subject to much critical acclaim. Today, works from this landmark exhibition grace the collections of Tate Modern, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
By punctuating his career with self-portraits, Warhol aligns himself with the greatest Old Master painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, who obsessively refashioned his appearance with intense scrutiny. Here, Warhol plays with ideas of ostentatious exhibitionism in his outrageously styled wig. Cropping the picture plane so that his chin scrapes uncomfortably along the bottom, both artist and image are overwhelmed by the wild flashes of hair aggressively crossing in electric diagonals. With a wig choice that connotes both the genius of Albert Einstein and the flamboyance of a drag queen, Warhol embraces the caricaturized version of his public persona as an avant-garde provocateur. However it was Warhol’s obsession with personas, brands and surface images that allowed him to hide behind the icons he created: “I was never embarrassed about asking someone, literally, ‘What should I paint?’ because Pop comes from the outside, and how is asking someone for ideas any different from looking for them in a magazine?” (the artist quoted in Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol ’60s, New York, 1980, p. 16) Despite being the most famous artist of his time, Warhol remained a private individual and, in contrast to the visions of perfection he proposed in his celebrity imagery, he was tormented by feelings of inadequacy regarding his own appearance. It is only here, in his very last self-portrait, that we receive a clear view of his face. As noted by one critic when these works were first revealed: "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)
Beneath the bombastic wig, the artist is bare faced, worn and vulnerable. The unforgiving camera flash alerts us to every minute detail of his furrowed complexion. The latent sense of dramaturgy in the wig remains somewhat unfulfilled; it is as if we have caught an actor unprepared, not fully in costume. In a 1971 interview with Gretchen Berg, Warhol stated, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." (the artist quoted in Hal Foster, "Death in America," in Annette Michelson and Benjamin D. Buchloh, Eds. Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p. 71) Unlike his late celebrity portraits from the preceding decade which had thick, expressionistic surfaces, here Warhol returns to the ineluctable flatness of the silkscreen, creating an unadulterated window to the vision it encapsulates. The flawlessly slick print shows Warhol attaining perfected clarity within the medium and, for the first time, the artist is allowing us to look plainly upon his visage. As prophetic and visionary as Warhol was, one cannot infer that he was aware of his impending passing when creating this masterpiece. But locked within the intensity of his stare we find a peculiar declaration of his humanity; as such, it is in this very last portrait that Warhol truthfully offers himself up to art history as an enduring monument.
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