Following a decade that was dominated by new celebrity portraiture, Warhol’s Camouflage series returned the artist to a profound investigation of painting. In his rendering of a highly recognizable and culturally loaded pattern, Warhol debates the multifarious capacities of the medium: its ability to refer to moments and cultural sentiments outside itself, as well as its very nature as a set of abstract forms manipulated on the canvas. Fascinated with the near religious reverence afforded to painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko within his lifetime, this series can be linked conceptually with Warhol’s earlier Rorschach paintings and Oxidation series, in their challenge to the mysticism of a self-professed ‘non-referential’ Abstract Expressionism. As noted by Bob Colacello: “Camouflage Paintings were the culmination of both his lifelong need to disguise himself and his career-long quest to come up with an art that would make the anti-Pop mandarins of the New York art world look at his work in a more favorable light... Of course, Andy being Andy, he couldn't resist tweaking even as he tried to please. 'What can I do,' he often asked his Factory workers, including me, 'that would be abstract, but not really abstract?'" (Bob Colacello, “Andy Warhol, Abstraction and the Camouflage Paintings,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Camouflage, 1997, p. 7) In a perfect visual pun, Warhol uses the army print to wage a sarcastic war on Abstract Expressionism by embracing an elemental pattern that is highly connotative of its original utilitarian and militarized purpose, as well as subsequent uses in fashion - Pop’s greatest ally. Much like Jasper Johns' iconic Flag paintings, the work is paradoxically purely abstract and highly referential. Camouflage (Blue) thus refers back to Warhol’s most essential obsession with a shared, mass-produced visual language.
Warhol’s initial inspiration for using the ubiquitous print came from his studio assistant Jay Shriver who had been experimenting with painting through this mesh. Of all his series of silkscreen paintings Warhol embraced perhaps the most variety in his use of screens and colors, working originally on a number of tracings from a single swatch of military fabric. At Rupert Smith’s silkscreen studio, Warhol would take great direction over the placement and composition of the screens. Whilst the overall effect is perhaps the most clean-cut amongst his oeuvre, the camouflage pattern allowed Warhol to experiment and exploit the potential for variation within the screen-printing process as well as the ambiguity of signs.
In the later years the camouflage print became a favored motif for Warhol. Acting as an enigmatic ground it appears in other significant silkscreen paintings including the iconic self-portraits from the same year as Camouflage (Blue), versions of which reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the present work the calming blues imbue the surface with a definite tranquility evocative of art historical references from Chinese landscapes to Monet's Water Lilies. By arranging discrete fields of color, Warhol references the iconic late cut-outs of Henri Matisse. Exemplified in the masterpiece Polynesia, the Sky from 1946, Matisse’s revolutionary construction of varied mono-tone blue fields provided an abstracted evocation of the natural world. Echoing Matisse’s masterful flattening of perspective and mystification of viewpoint, Warhol indulges in the play between the entrenched cultural and immediate tonal connotations of a blue camouflage print: simultaneously it can be read as land, sea and sky, neatly articulating the endless ambiguity of seemingly clear-cut signs.
The last two years of Warhol’s life were arguably both his busiest and his most trying, as he faced declining health; a stark reminder of the mortality which had been a longstanding obsession of his career. To some it seemed that the camouflage works provided an artistic sanctum: "Abstraction was not only a way to be taken more seriously, but also–and much more significantly–a refuge from difficulties of reality. In that sense, the Camouflage paintings, in all their formal abstract splendor, can be seen as true portraits of Andy Warhol’s inner-self." (Bob Colacello, Ibid., p. 9)
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