In his 1986 Self Portrait, Andy Warhol offers himself as a monument to the ages: as Warhol the celebrity, ‘Warhol’ the artistic style, and Warhol the man. As the final major body of work that Warhol produced, painted just months before his untimely death in February of 1987, the 1986 Self Portraits are universally acknowledged as the Pop pioneer’s last great artistic gesture. The present work’s monumental 80-inch format—exceeded only in scale by seven known 108-inch examples—endows it with a unique status as both an engulfing cenotaph and a highly personal encounter. 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. The present work is further distinguished for its inclusion in Warhol's seminal 1986 exhibition of Self Portraits at Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London. Signifying the artist’s ultimate mastery of his long-sustained and famous silkscreen method, the perfected clarity of the transferred image in the present example is arguably unparalleled within his oeuvre. Like an anticipatory elegy, Self Portrait crafts the most iconic vision of the artist who, having been so obsessed with the transience of life and the enduring power of the image, finally faces his own looming mortality. In the present work, Warhol’s visage is presented to the viewer obscured by a veil of camouflage; the silkscreen camouflage overlay makes graphically evident the dichotomy of inner self and public self that pervaded Warhol’s enigmatic persona. This portrait of duality—the knowable and unknowable—is quintessential Warhol.
80 x 80 INCH FRIGHT WIG SELF PORTRAITS IN IMPORTANT MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
“If I’d gone ahead and died ten years ago, I’d probably be a cult figure today.”
The Macklowe Collection: David Galperin on Warhol's Self Portrait, 1986
Warhol's genius for contradiction is nowhere more dramatic than in the present Self Portrait: the employment of disguise in the act of revelation. Warhol here finally allows full scrutiny of his visage, offering a sense of unmediated access never yet afforded to his public; and yet, the portrait head is veiled in a pattern defined by its ability to conceal. In Self Portrait, the ability of the camouflage pattern to deconstruct the underlying object is at its most powerful and poignant. Warhol used as his source for these paintings a Polaroid photograph—the instantaneous image-capturing method which had guided his portrait practice of the previous decade. 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—wild tufts of spiked hair, gauntly defined cheeks, utterly penetrating stare—floating in a black void. 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, January - February 1987, p. 9) Floating against the velvety black ground, Warhol’s visage is powerfully reminiscent of the enormous face of the wizard of Oz in the 1939 film of the same name, which Warhol would undoubtedly have watched as a child. Like Oz, Warhol’s face looms larger than life, awe-inspiring and almost fearsome in its graphic force.
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 affected 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 would return to self portraiture in the 1960s—first in 1963-64, then in 1966-67. 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, Warhol’s genius lies in the fact that this persona was itself intrinsic to the conceptual purview of his practice. Fundamental to these self portraits 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. The retrospectively named Fright Wig paintings are, like the earlier Polaroid portraits, 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 paintings formed the first and only show in Warhol's career dedicated to the theme of self portraiture.
"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."
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 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 ironic 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 with his depictions of starlets like Marilyn Monroe. Moving away from the vibrant monochrome colors used for his silver-screen stars, in this camouflaged 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.
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. 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 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)