Andy Warhol Signing a Lithograph, 1965. Photograph by Bob Adelman/Corbis.
21 Days of Andy Warhol is Sotheby’s three-week celebration of the essential 20th century artist with one-a-day stories and videos about Warhol’s origins, influences, inspirations, all leading up to the sale of important Warhol pieces in our Contemporary Art Evening auction 13 November.
NEW YORK- Andy Warhol famously told Art News interviewer Gene Swenson, "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do." Warhol was referring to his newfound process of silk-screen printing images repeatedly onto a single canvas. This act of undermining any translation or evidence of the artist's hand in favor of a mass-produced, machine-like look appealed to Warhol. Once he discovered the process and implications of working with silk screens, the content of Warhol's output as a painter became inextricably linked to the process by which he created his art.
Warhol's grid-like paintings of dollar bills from 1962 are his earliest attempts at silk-screen printing, when the artist was still getting to know the process. At that time he used his own drawings as the basis to create the silk-screened print. He reportedly was not entirely happy with the result, calling 129 Die in Jet!, another painting based on a drawing, "smeary." But Warhol soon learned that it was possible to use photographs as the basis for a silk-screen print, and the resulting image proved much sharper – though not too sharp – and thus to Warhol's liking.
Warhol's Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), which will be featured in Sotheby's upcoming Evening sale of Contemporary Art on November 13, illustrates well Warhol's process as a painter. Materially, the artwork consists of acrylic paint and silk-screen ink on canvas. We see a flat yellow background surrounding a spotty yet recognizable image of Elizabeth Taylor, the actress and celebrity, who, like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, repeatedly served as Warhol's subject.
Here Warhol appropriated a 1950s publicity photo of Taylor as the source material for the silk screen. Warhol worked with professionals to have the photos he chose transferred onto the mesh of a silk screen. When Warhol passed an ink-laden squeegee over the mesh as the silk screen sat atop his canvas, ink would pass through the mesh and impress a print of his image onto the canvas. Areas of the mesh where a layer of glue has been applied – in Warhol's case, the "negative" space of the photos he selected – keep paint from passing through to the canvas.
Observing the grainier areas of Liz's hair, it's clear that Warhol first applied the yellow paint before adding the layer of black ink that comprises her face. Her intense red lips and eye shadow were also applied during separate passes of the squeegee. To Warhol the noticeable "imperfections" – such as the faint areas of Liz's hair and the way the lipstick bleeds onto her chin – weren't signs of a poorly pulled silk screen-image but rather welcome indications of how chance influenced his work. As Warhol's biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton point out, Warhol "was not after a picture-perfect, sharp-edged result; he wanted the trashy immediacy of a tabloid news photo."
By his use of the silk-screen process mixed with high-key acrylic paint, Warhol imbued Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz) with a kind of tragic radiance. And by re-using the silk screen of the '50s publicity photo for other portraits of the film star and tabloid fixation, Warhol investigated through multiplicity the commodification of fame.
Tomorrow: Andy Warhol and Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz)