At 6:32am on February 22, 1987, Andy Warhol unexpectedly passed away in a Manhattan hospital when recovering from routine surgery. Whilst the artist had been suffering from intermittent bouts of ill health, to both friends, family and followers, the sudden death of an artist who had recently regained widespread critical acclaim seemed all the more tragic. Warhol’s profound symbolic repertoire had contributed to art history interminably pertinent ideas surrounding fame, mortality and the superficiality of images. Having established his international renown with his groundbreaking appropriation of mass-media and consumer imagery in the early 1960s, Warhol became synonymous with Pop Art, a reputation that was cemented by the legendary corpus of celebrity portraits he executed during the critical first years of his mature career. From Marilyn Monroe to Liz Taylor and Elvis Presley, it was at the dawn of the 1960s that Warhol assembled his cast of visual icons who, rendered in his unique Technicolor vision, came to define an entirely new aesthetic movement. To turn in the wake of this breakthrough success, however, by Warhol’s own admission, posed a significant challenge: “Gee, What’s happened to Andy Warhol?” the artist reflected “the 70s were sort of quiet… I think the 80s are going to be more exciting…in the 70s, nothing really different happened in art.” (the artist cited in Paul Gardner, “Gee What’s happened to Andy Warhol?,” Art News, 79, November 1980, p. 26) With the exception of his Mao series created from 1972-73, Warhol’s output in the 1970s was dominated by a string of portrait commissions which formed an atlas of American and European high-society, much decried by critics for a lack of originality; rather than being an astute commentator on the consumer market, Warhol was pandering to consumer demand. The 1980s however offered an opportunity for renewal as the wave of Neo-Expressionism that came to dominate the landscape for painting served as a provocation for Warhol to reengage with his former glory. As critic Robert Pincus-Witten observed in 1980, “Glitz, glitter, glass seem the real subject of contemporary art… I suppose the real critical issue today is the beauty of the skin deep and the life of the mind as epitomized by Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. In the ‘60s, Warhol was a burning critical issue. In the ‘70s, Warholism had superseded Warhol. In the ‘80s, the Return of Andy Warhol.” (Robert Pincus-Witten, “Entries: Big History, Little History,” Arts Magazine, 54, April 1980, p. 184) Whilst as early as 1978 Warhol had begun to re-appropriate his own art with his Retrospectives and subsequent Reversal series, by returning to the genre of self-portraiture in 1986 Warhol was able to recall the aesthetic and conceptual genius of his former years whilst producing a body of work that was simultaneously timely and radically original. As one of the last series Warhol undertook, the 1986 Self-Portraits are universally acknowledged as the Pop-art pioneer’s last great artistic gesture in which he truly re-attains the artistic preeminence of his seminal art from the 1960s.
Warhol’s initial foray into self-portraiture began as a student in Pittsburgh in 1948, with an irreverent painting that he submitted to the city’s annual artists' exhibition entitled The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose. Whilst lacking the effected cool of his later output, this stridently humorous and attention-seeking performance anticipates the awareness of audience that would characterize the artist’s subsequent self-reflections. Warhol’s first series of self-portraits as an established artist, created from 1963-64, were in fact born out of a commission from the collector Florence Barron. Ingeniously reversing the traditional role of artist patron within the realm of portraiture, Warhol used the same photo-booth format that he had for his commissions from collector Ethel Scull and cabaret star Bobby Short. Shamelessly self-styled with dark glasses and a trench coat, here Warhol presents a sense of enigma exacerbated by his crude mastery of the silkscreen process at the time. Mirroring the playfully equivocal image that he was consciously constructing at the time with regards to his media persona, Warhol’s third series of self-portraits from 1966-67 show an aloof face half caught in shadow and adopting a pensive hand-to-mouth pose. Much like the immediately preceding set of full frontal portraits from 1964 in which the artist’s features are subsumed in the vibrant pop tones of the background, the 1966-67 works revel in blasts of dramatic color blocking which vibrate with the sensations of thermal imagery and through which the artist is almost enveloped in his own abstractions. In these images we witness the complete conflation of the artist and the sensational style that he had become known for. In contrast to the long idealized view of a self-portrait stemming from an artist’s introspective volition, from its genesis Warhol’s self-portraiture was a means of performing for a public other. By 1966 Warhol was firmly a star in his own right. Maintained through his aloof conduct in interviews, wild social calendar and the styling of his physical appearance, his fastidiously constructed and highly affected public image was almost as famous as his artistic production. Embodying the constructs of fame, value and appearances that he examined, indeed Warhol’s genius lies in the fact that this persona was itself intrinsic to the conceptual purview of his practice. Fundamentally what these early portraits represent is both the highly self-conscious construction and maintenance of the celebrity that Warhol so fervently valorized in earlier works, and which existed for Warhol intrinsically within the realm of superficial appearances. In essence they foreshadow a comment made by Warhol in 1971: "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 cited in Hal Foster, “Death in America,” in Annette Michelson & Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Eds. Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p. 71)
Whilst Warhol would return to the self-portrait on a few select occasions over the proceeding decades, it would be 20 years before he executed his next, and final, major series. The retrospectively named Fright Wig paintings are similarly the result of a commission, but this time from the highly influential gallerist Anthony d’Offay. The revered patron subsequently recalled its beginnings: "I realized two things: first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the Twentieth 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., Kunstverein St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, 2004, p. 131) Unveiled at d'Offay’s London gallery in July 1986, the Fright Wig self-portraits formed the first and only show in Warhol's career dedicated to the theme of self-portraiture. Moving away from the photo-booth images of 1963-64, Warhol used a Polaroid photograph as his source for these paintings – the instantaneous image capturing method which had guided his portrait practice of the previous decade. Looking at the original images we see that Warhol wore a black turtle-neck sweater for his portrait, which, when filtered through the stark contrast of the monochrome silk-screen, allows the neck to disappear completely. The result is an eerie illusion of a disembodied head floating in a black void. Whilst d’Offay had expressed his preference within the series of Polaroids that Warhol supplied, the artist chose to also use the far more confrontational image that gave birth to the present work. Here Warhol's eyes appear more deeply sunken, half concealed by the wild tufts of his spiked hair, and his strikingly gaunt cheeks trace lines up his face. All work together to frame the artist’s utterly penetrating stare. The macabre existentialism locked in this image was not lost on contemporary critics, as John Caldwell noted 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)
Attesting to the undeniable and universally acknowledged significance of these works, other Fright Wig self-portraits of the same 80-inch format grace international museum collections including the Tate Gallery, London; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the Baltimore Museum of Art; and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Encapsulated most perfectly in the unique ghostly white of the present example, the stark chiaroscuro of the image endows the series with a spectral presence that is compounded by the proximity of its creation to Warhol’s passing. Undoubtedly the fantastic allure of this late works is the seemingly prophetic character they hold in which Warhol creates his ultimate memento mori; a reminder of the inescapable link between life and death. Through his compositional disembodiment Warhol’s likeness becomes distinctly skull-like. From the seventeenth-century Dutch still life genre of the vanitas, to Warhol’s own paintings and photographs, the skull as ultimate symbol of mortality has permeated art history. Warhol’s fascination with the transience of life permeated his choice of imagery throughout his career, from his earlier Death and Disaster and Electric Chair series to a corpus of Skull paintings executed in 1976 and a smaller group of 1978 self-portraits that show the artist posing with an anatomical skull. This preoccupation was not unfounded: in 1964 Dorothy Podber had walked into Warhol’s studio unannounced and with a loaded pistol, shooting at a 40 inch Marilyn canvas several times; in 1967 a man similarly entered the Factory, threatened Warhol and his staff and then shot at the wall; finally on June 3rd 1968 Valerie Solanas entered the Factory and successfully shot Warhol in the chest, leaving him in a critical condition. It is in these late portraits, after experiencing nearly two decades of ongoing health issues following the traumatic event of 1968, Warhol finally turns his fascination with mortality back onto himself. As Warhol's friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled at the time of their unveiling “Some spectators” were keen to recognize the paintings as an “unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality.” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 402)
Warhol’s seemingly morbid obsession was perhaps not with death per se, but rather the images that are left behind by the deceased and the fact that death imbues them with a sense of legend, myth and iconicity. At the very beginning of Warhol’s 1980 publication Popism, we are met with an indication of his sentimental enchantment with the status of the posthumous celebrity: “If I’d gone ahead and died ten years ago, I’d probably be a cult figure today.” (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol ‘60s, New York, 1980, p. 3) Noticeably ageing and left physically wounded as a direct result of his fame, by 1986 the artist makes a final attempt to give his iconic status a lasting image. Yet, perhaps somewhat jaded by experience, he no longer adopts the tone of sweet Pop nostalgia that he indulged in with his depictions of former starlets such as Marilyn Monroe. Moving away from the vibrant colors used for his silver-screen stars, in this distilled black and white silkscreen we find the most melancholic manifestation of Warhol’s realization that, whilst he may rival Marilyn in fame, he will never be able to experience or influence his status as a legend; a true legend is a posthumous legend.
Through the very act of punctuating his career with self-portraits, Warhol places himself in dialogue with the greatest painters of history. In the Sixteenth Century, Albrecht Dürer periodically returned to self-portraiture, rendering meticulous self-depictions throughout his career. Whilst the unrelenting frontality of the present work evokes Dürer’s arresting portrait from 1500, the appeal to melancholy also parallels the German artist’s concealed self-portrait in the detailed grisailles etching Melancholia I of 1514. From the seventeenth-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, Warhol adopted a penetrating and contemplative stare. Yet falling just short of the emotional connection that Rembrandt articulated in paint, Warhol’s cold glare aims for timelessness and the sense of immortality embodied in an ancient marble bust. Contributing to the evocation of the scull motif, Warhol’s lifeless look shows him as almost prematurely deceased, once again beckoning the sense of legend he so fervently coveted. Unedited and brutally honest, Warhol’s presentation of himself also speaks with fluency to the discomforted self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh and the unflattering self-scrutiny of Francis Bacon. Moreover, assaulted by the harsh flash of the camera, here Warhol’s emaciated features and dark gaping mouth seem to recall the existential shock of Edward Munch’s Scream.
The remarkable exposure of Warhol’s ageing features comes as a result of his undeniable mastery of the silkscreen method – his greatest technical gift to the art of portraiture. In Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) the expressionistic surfaces of his 1970s portraits is abandoned in favor of ineluctable flatness and perfected clarity of the silkscreen; an open window onto the subject. Whilst the enlargement of the original Polaroid image to this scale gives a wonderfully ethereal effect, the flawlessly slick print shows Warhol as absolute technical master of the technique that he pioneered. Most crucially, for the first time the artist is allowing us to look plainly upon his face. Obsessed with surface and image, naturally Warhol had occasionally expressed dissatisfaction with the details of his appearance. As David Bourdon observed, the penchant for modifying his appearance that was evident in the early portraiture took on corporeal effect in his later life: "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) Yet submitted to a tight compositional focus and glaring light, here Warhol creates a strange dichotomy between his vulnerable exposed face and theatrically expansive wig that consumes almost two thirds of the frame. With the wild flashes of hair aggressively crossing his face at diagonals, this highly stylized take on the artist’s signature white wig evokes both the unruly locks of scientific genius Albert Einstein and the flamboyance of the artist’s self-portraits in drag from 1981. From 1984-85 the wigs that Warhol wore got longer, more voluminous and appeared to be teased, as a staunch attempt to maintain the glamour of his identity against the inevitable process of ageing. Like an avant-garde crown, Warhol adorns himself with the most exaggerated visual symbol of ‘Warhol’ that he can construct. Seemingly engulfed by the wig’s structured locks, Warhol makes a final effigy of the bombastic public persona that had at points overwhelmed both the artist and his career.
With the confluence of a renewed painting practice, bustling social life, multiple business ventures, print projects, television productions and fashion engagements, the late 1980s were undoubtedly some of the busiest years in Warhol’s career. Yet amidst a restored sense of success, the transience of life still weighed heavy on Warhol’s mind and, in part, propelled him to create what are undeniably some of his greatest masterpieces: “Really, what’s life about? You get sick and die. That’s it. So you’ve got to keep busy.” (the artist cited in Pat Hackett, Ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 721) More than any artist before him, Warhol's image was inextricably bound to his art, as he lived within the sense of celebrity that it examined. While in the 1960s, Warhol was an aloof commentator on the consumer culture that was sweeping through an economically prosperous America, in his final decade he and his art had become synonymous with contemporary American culture itself. Yet despite being the most famous artist of his time, Warhol remained a private individual, shielded by the characters he played and the masks he wore. As such, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) is truly a culmination of everything that ‘Warhol’ stood for. Intimate yet performative, the present work bears witness to the clearest articulation of what curator Robert Rosenblum has described as “the endless contradictions” of Andy Warhol, “which constantly shift back and forth between telling us all and telling us nothing about the artist who can seem, even in the same work, both vulnerable and invulnerable, both superficial and profound.” (Robert Rosenblum, “Andy Warhol’s Disguises’” in Exh. Cat., St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen (and travelling), Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, 2004, p. 21) Substantiated in the salient tension between fragile human face and fantastical synthetic hair, it is by embodying this intriguing paradox that Andy Warhol has attained his truly mythical status within the history of visual culture.
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