The Piss Paintings were all created in 1977 and 1978. To produce them, Warhol prepared canvases with grounds of metallic paint, before inviting certain individuals to urinate across the canvas according to his instructions. After the urine dried, it formed a distinctive green patina. Vincent Freemont – manager of the artist’s studio at the time of their creation – described the process: “I can remember watching him creating all these paintings, liking them but not realising at the time just how important they were… The series that really stands out in my memory are the Piss and Oxidation Paintings, since the process of making these paintings was so unusual… He painted the canvas with different kinds of metallic paints, either gold or copper. Then Ronnie Cutrone, Victor Hugo, and others, including some female participants, were invited into the back room at various times to pee onto the canvas under his direction… This process resulted in amazingly beautiful paintings, both large and small, that have a lot to do with alchemy and chemistry.” (Vincent Fremont in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagaosian Gallery, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, 2006, p. 113).
Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings have often been likened to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. In terms of style, the parallels are clear. Both bodies of work are based around abstract compositions, bright colors, and gestural linear marks. However, in the Oxidation Paintings , Warhol appears to have been working more in pastiche of Pollock’s legacy than in emulation of it. Pollock’s works were venerated for their sense of gesture; prized above almost any other paintings for being the work of the artist’s own hand. Throughout his career, Warhol had taken a diametrically opposite approach. His silkscreen technique removed any trace of artistic intervention from the face of the canvas, and his Factory studio introduced multiple people to the creation and conception of each artistic endeavor. Moreover, Pollock was notorious for his machismo and bravado; he reputedly urinated on his own canvases before sending them to patrons he didn’t like; and he had famously urinated in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace after she cut one of his murals down to size. Thus, the Oxidation Paintings appropriate the infamous gestures of Pollock’s brash masculinity to create works that satirize the linear formulation of his celebrated paintings.
In pseudo-mocking tone works such as the present, highlight the marked differences between Warhol and his Abstract Expressionist antecedents. Pollock’s works glorified Jackson Pollock; accompanied by the famous Hans Namuth photographs, they showed him as an individual master who created individual masterpieces. Conversely, Warhol’s works showed him as much as the product of a celebrity culture as the arbiter of it: his works were multiples based off images that were ubiquitous and his oeuvre was wholly bounded to his milieu. It has been commented that the Oxidation Paintings are backlashes against his predominant artistic project of the 1970s – the society portraits.. In fact, they were created in exactly the same conceptual vein. The characters who were earlier flashed with Warhol’s Polaroid lens and silkscreened onto canvas were, in 1978, invited into the backroom of the factory to help finish the Piss Paintings, each one showing just how much Warhol thought of the legacy of his Abstract Expressionist forbears.
In the interpretation of the present work, we can detect palpable influence from of European conceptual artists Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni. Yves Klein Anthropometry works provide an obvious point of comparison. To create this series, Klein doused female models in blue pigment before dragging and pressing their bodies across prepared paper grounds to create dramatic individual abstract compositions. Like Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings , they situated the artist at a distance from the finished work, and removed any notion of gesture. In addition to being a relic of an innovative performance, the present work reveals an energy and ultimately distinctive and beautiful color palette that distinguishes these pieces as independent and seductive aesthetic objects. The slightly sardonic tone of the Oxidation Paintings, as well as the use of human excrement, also calls to mind Piero Manzoni’s celebrated Merda d’Artista works, which consisted of small labelled cans purporting to contain 30 grams of the artist’s feces. Those works similarly satirised the way that the art public fetishized the work of celebrated artists, and glorified it for being the product of their own hand: “if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit. That is really his” (Piero Manzoni cited in Freddy Battino, Ed., Piero Manzoni: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 144)
Although demonstrating Warhol's keen interest in turning the banal into an object of desire and beauty, the Piss Paintings are strikingly unique within Warhol's oeuvre; they signify a departure from his silkscreen technique in pursuit of gestural and conceptual abstraction and, in a literal sense, each canvas is entirely original and unreproducible. Combining the legacy of Pollock with those of Klein and Manzoni, these works synthesize groundbreaking advancements in painting in a way that could only be achieved by an artist as daring as Warhol.
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