In the latter part of the 20th century, Andy Warhol solidified his place amongst the most important and influential self-portraitists in the history of art by paradoxically fusing high society and the avant-garde, ultimately transforming the art of an age and cultivating a lifestyle of celebrity. Throughout his career, Warhol turned to his own visage to create works such as the present painting, filled with immediacy, vivacity, and simultaneously with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue. Renowned for his candid depictions of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Liz Taylor, Warhol here steps out from behind the camera and into the glare of its flashbulb, marking the moment that he joins their rank and the birth of Warhol the icon – a paragon of the golden era of Pop and the ultimate arbiter of celebrity glamour.
More than any artist before him, Warhol’s identity and constructed public persona were inextricably bound to his art. The self-portraits thus became the richest and most fertile sites for his own invention. Warhol’s earliest self-portraits were inspired by the feted Detroit collector Florence Barron, who visited his studio in 1963 with Ivan Karp, legendary dealer at the Leo Castelli Gallery, in order to discuss commissioning her own portrait. During this fateful meeting, Karp managed to persuade both artist and patron that a self-portrait would be even more appropriate given Warhol’s blossoming fame following successful shows at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and the Stable Gallery in New York. The dealer, convinced that a self-portrait series would propel Warhol to new heights persuaded the artist saying, “You know, people want to see you. Your looks are responsible for a certain part of your fame – they feed the imagination” (Ivan Karp in Carter Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York 1983, p. 52). Throughout Warhol’s oeuvre one can trace the changes in technique and style while Warhol remains a recognizable icon who is as immediately recognizable as Marilyn, Jackie, or Liz. In doing so, he reinvented the medium as part of his vast repertoire of visual languages – and as part of a dialogue between the hand and the machine, and between the private Warhol and his public persona.
The current work was created ten years after Warhol was unexpectedly shot by Valerie Solanas, which left him in the hospital for two months recuperating from surgeries to repair his lungs, esophagus, spleen, liver and stomach; the damage from which he never fully recovered. Warhol’s self-portraits from these later years are quite different from his earlier works and reflect the growing concerns that he had with mortality as his life progressed. Themes related to the fragility of human life became ever more prominent in his praxis following the 1968 shooting and can be seen in the triple image of the present work where the artist’s piercing yet absent stare sheds light into his complex inner thoughts. The multiple exposures of the 1978 negative portraits, such as the present work, suggest a confused identity fraught with uncertainty as Warhol examines the deep shadows and dark recesses of his own psyche. Throughout his illustrious career, Warhol’s aim was to remove his hand altogether from the making of an artwork, which strongly juxtaposes the three brushstrokes in the bottom right corner read almost like fingerprints intimately tying the artist to the final product.
Indeed, self-portraits are the ultimate example of the irony inherent to his oeuvre: proof that his pictures were designed not to portray or expose truth, but instead to acknowledge the artifice and deception inherent to any form of representation. In Self-Portrait, Warhol presented himself as a complex, constructed fiction. If Andy Warhol’s serial depictions of Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Kennedy decisively declare and eternally reinforce their celebrity, his Self-Portraits at once construct and immortalize his own fame. As historian Robert Rosenblum has noted about Warhol’s portraits: “We end up knowing everything and nothing. So it is that artist’s self-portraits, whether intended as disclosure or as concealment, remain as fictional as their other work…Andy Warhol’s self-portraits 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 Kunstverein Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, 2004).
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