Contemporary Art

Three Windows on Warhol


The paintings by Andy Warhol gathered here span twenty-four years, and each proclaims his self-confidence and artistic ingenuity. The earliest and smallest is a close-up of a sheet of airmail stamps, cropped to look casual. The second is a still life of workers’ tools presented in a fiery glare. The last is a confounding self portrait consisting of a particolored headshot enclosed in darkness. This essay considers each work as a way station offering a glimpse of Warhol’s cheeky yet loving dance with the venerable artistic practice of applying color to flat surfaces.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Andrew Warhola was the non-WASP incarnate. His parents were poor Slavic immigrants and devout Byzantine Catholics. Somehow their tender youngest child discovered the confidence to strive for the American Dream – a phrase popularized during the Great Depression to evoke the vision of “a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” 1 As a student in the Department of Painting and Design at Carnegie Institute of Technology he encountered the spectrum of recent painting that included Expressionism, Abstraction and Social Realism. Throughout the 1950s he was a successful illustrator in New York. Naturally he followed the latest trends in painting, and doubtless raised an eyebrow in 1956 when Time magazine responded to Jackson Pollock’s passionate experimentalism by dubbing him “Jack the Dripper.”

Early in the 1960s, when Warhol made his bid to become a painter, he was prepared to battle the biases and high stakes of Manhattan’s heavily policed ghetto of “fine art.” Knowing the odds were against him as an openly gay commercial artist, he daringly amped up his already-quirky persona and used it both as a shield and a weapon against those who scoffed at his paintings. Warhol was nobody’s fool, even as he played the fool. No-one was more devoted to hard work and advancement than he. The awful truth of his professional and personal predicament can be glimpsed in an interview he gave in 1977, published in High Times. When asked "Do you believe in the American Dream?" Warhol replied, "I don't, but I think we can make some money out of it."


Late in 1960 the artist and his mother quit their New York apartment and moved to a townhouse he purchased near Lexington Avenue and 89th Street. Warhol’s new abode promptly inspired him to launch an exploration of paintings of everyday things. His subjects ranged from images in the popular press (ads, comics, crosswords) to items that he could depict multiple times in the same picture (dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles, canned goods). He deployed an array of technical aids for these projects, including opaque projectors, hand-cut stencils, stamps carved in rubber or balsa wood, and Letraset instant rubdown typefaces.

Blue Airmail Stamps is one part of a small group of canvases that depict U.S. 7¢ airmail stamps. The first government issue, in 1958, featured two shades of blue. After those tints proved frustrating for mail sorters, the postal service printed the same design in red in 1960. That Warhol made paintings of each color version of the 7¢ stamp attests to his visual attentiveness to the nitty gritty of commercial art and marketing. His interest in both issues of the airmail stamp paralleled his contemporaneous move to make thirty-two paintings of Campell’s soup cans, each showing a different flavor. The group represented the full list of soup products available to American consumers. (Those canvases, uniform in size, constituted Warhol’s landmark exhibition at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in July 1962.)

Andy Warhol, Shoe and Roses, 1956. Image © Tate, London/ Art Resource, NY. Art © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for thE Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The key implement for Blue Airmail Stamps was a stamp carved from an art-gum eraser. After setting down a background of pale blue acrylic paint, the artist used the stamp to imprint the silhouetted design elements in a medium blue. As a result, the form of a jet passenger plane stands out against its dark surround. All the units on the grid differ slightly because each was stamped by hand: some are more uniform in tone, some crisper in profile. It is not certain how the small off-white lacunae representing the perforations were made. Ever alert to word play and drollery, Warhol doubtless savored the avant-garde mischief of deploying a hand-carved stamp to make a painting of government-printed items. But he had worked with such artisanal implements for several years, and they contributed to the folkish look he presented as an illustrator. In Shoe and Roses, a beautiful example of his faux naïf style of the 1950s, a hand-carved stamp generated a grid of twelve rose motifs, each superimposed on a quickly painted circle of pink pigment.

Warhol was hustling to find official gallery representation at the start of 1962, and the provenance of Blue Airmail Stamps sheds light on that time. He inscribed this painting as a gift to John Weber, who worked at Martha Jackson Gallery. Weber had a prescient interest in the artist and he brokered sales of his early paintings. In 1962 Weber sold two of the larger works in the “Airmail” series to the collecting couple Leon Mnuchin and Harriet Gevirtz Mnuchin (one red, one blue, both 20 x 16 inches).


In November 1962 the Stable Gallery hosted Warhol’s first solo exhibition of paintings in New York. The range of subject matter and the technical variety astonished viewers. The artist’s most crucial move in the months prior to this exhibition was to work with silkscreens that reproduced photographs. They were custom-made for the artist by a commercial supplier. On the practical side they spared Warhol the painstaking efforts required by homemade stencils and stamps. Most importantly, the photo-based silkscreens conveyed a note of industrial manufacture that, combined with his penchant for grid-based repetition, soon positioned him as an outlandish exponent of the movement dubbed Pop Art.

Andy Warhol in the Factory with portraits of Watson Powell, 1964. Photo © Bob Adelman. Art © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery included photo-silkscreened paintings of four different subjects, each photograph taken from the popular press: a baseball batter and catcher in action; Troy Donahue; Marilyn Monroe; and Elvis Presley. Although Warhol had happened on this new style through creative play and experiment, some critics quickly attacked it as a loutish affront to traditional notions of painting. For a 1965 publicity photograph the artist posed sphinxlike on the floor, presiding over twelve unstretched canvases made with silkscreens. The setting was the studio on East 47th Street that he nicknamed “The Factory.” These paintings of Watson Powell, the president of the American Republic Insurance Company, exemplify Warhol’s absolute flair for visual paradox: ganged up in this way they seem to be commercial products rather than one-off works of art. In other words, Warhol’s heyday as the conquering misfit of Pop had begun.


In 1976 Warhol was living in a townhouse on East 66th Street with interior designer Jed Johnson, his companion of eight years’ standing. Two years earlier he moved his studio to the northeast corner of Union Square: there was an impressive greeting area with Art Deco accoutrements, assorted work spaces, the offices of his magazine Interview (launched in 1969), and a vintage paneled dining room. With a career as a portraitist in full flight, commissions in 1976 resulted in images of Golda Meir (for the Israel Museum), Jimmy Carter (for the Democratic National Committee), and Farah Pahlavi (for the Shah of Iran). That year he also worked on two independent bodies of work: portraits of the Native American political activist Russell Means and pictorial juxtapositions of a hammer and a sickle. Warhol’s decision to spotlight Indigenous People and a political emblem of the Soviet Union during his country’s Bicentennial clamor signaled a dislike of jingoism. When debuting each series, he chose an umbrella title for all works in each group: “The American Indian” and “Still Life 1976.” (The latter group has been consistently titled “Hammer and Sickle” since 1980.)

Source material for the present work, a hammer and sickle photographed with Andy Warhol’s markings. Art © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s studio assistant, remembered the Hammer and Sickle project as a very successful combination of “the playful spirit of Dada and the stark style of Conceptualism.” 2 In 1923 overlapping emblems of a hammer and sickle occupied the center of the state emblem of the Soviet Union. Flat overlapping silhouettes of the motifs appeared on Communist flags, symbolizing the harmony between industry and agriculture in the international labor movement. On visits to Italy Warhol was surprised how common the emblem was in graffiti, and he decided to explore it for himself. His idea was to juxtapose the two objects in conformity with the traditional genre of the still life, and he had Cutrone make black and white photos to experiment with compositional ideas. He thought about including another item in the composition to counteract the tendency to politicize the imagery: the try-outs included a tube of toothpaste, a vibrator, a slice of pizza, and a bag of sliced bread. After committing to the Communistic duo Warhol subjected his hammer and sickle to a spartan program involving strong light and an anonymous white setting. He painted a surprising variety of compositions, all of them fanciful and energized, and sometimes slightly bawdy. Warhol’s deliberately uneven applications of paint created tactile surfaces connoting fluidity and sensuality. Most of the pictures evoke a cool airy setting by using white or light-toned backgrounds, but this particular Hammer and Sickle is unremittingly hot. Here Warhol colored the tools and the surrounding spaces with a bright, slightly orange red, then he painted the areas loosely corresponding to shadows with a darker, more intense red. He completed the work by printing a silkscreen image in black on top of the two red colors.

Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle series proved a rich many-layered instance of his instinct to invert and destabilize the thing at hand. In many of the paintings one can read the information imprinted on the sickle’s wooden handle, including the words “Champion” and “True Temper.” (Ronnie Cutrone purchased both tools at Astro Hardware Center in Manhattan.) Thus, the viewer’s beginning thoughts about the nature and attributes of Communism soon intersect with nods to capitalist enterprise and competition. Warhol’s high-strung color and painterly textures recall Abstract Expressionism, which, during the Cold War, was construed in some quarters as America’s high modernist weapon to combat Soviet figurative realism. In 1976 Warhol probably enjoyed the idea of unshackling rigid political emblems and delivering them to an eclectic free zone, but I doubt that he was making fun of such artists as Willem de Kooning. Less hypothetical, and more to the point, this series excels by confronting viewers with an irrepressible sense of plucky hedonism (fueled by disco beats and other stimulants du jour). For the opening of his “Still Life” exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, Warhol conscripted Victor Hugo, fashion designer Halston’s Venezuelan partner, as a crazy, sexy, macho alter ego. Warhol wore a shirt and tie under a winter jacket with a fur collar, while Hugo appeared shirtless in black leather pants, flourishing the original hammer and sickle depicted in the paintings.

Andy Warhol at the opening of the exhibition Hammer & Sickle at the Castelli Gallery, January 11, 1977. Victor Hugo, Halston’s boyfriend, holds the original hammer and sickle used as models. Photo © Allan Tannenbaum.

Hammer and Sickle projects an ambiguity that is the antithesis of such narrative compositions as Crowd with Communist Flags, created when Warhol was an illustrator working under orders. The latter, possibly made on spec, combined jittery ink washes with Warhol’s blotted line technique. It probably dates from 1952-54, when the “Red Scare” and “McCarthyism” engrossed the government’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Crowd with Communist Flags has impartial air. It is not known to have been published, and there are no secondary clues to help us read the image. Overall, it shares the reportorial solemnity of Warhol’s 1951 graphics advertising a CBS radio series about organized crime: “The Nation’s Nightmare.”

Andy Warhol, Crowd with Communist Flags, 1950s. Image © The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Art © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


The self portraits in which Warhol sported a wild and crazy wig quickly drew attention as milestones in his oeuvre. Accepting the fact his boyish days were over, the new pictures announced an ostensibly deeper and mannish chapter for “Prince of Pop.” They became all the more poignant when he died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months after their debut. The 1986 self portraits belong to the dark days of the Reagan Presidency, when neoconservatives waged their war in defense of the “traditional” family and the AIDS crisis ravaged the art world. Warhol’s companion, Jon Gould, was diagnosed with the disease and they separated in 1985. On the bright side, he was befriending young people involved with new wave, post-punk and street art, and in 1984 he moved his studio and offices to a former Consolidated Edison building on East 33rd Street. These experiences helped him re-channel the rebel energy that distinguished his Sixties persona. For example, he made a new exploration of black and white illustrations clipped from the popular press; they bore such catchphrases as ARE YOU “DIFFERENT?” and AIRBORNE – WE KILL FOR PEACE.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986.  Art © 2022 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Self Portrait features an image derived from a Polaroid snapshot. To create the illusion of a head hovering in an inky void Warhol wore a black turtleneck in front of a dark surface. When making this painting he first covered the canvas with his camouflage pattern in oddly wistful colors: yellow, blue, green and dark gray. Over this ground he printed the photo silkscreen in shiny black ink, thereby generating the extensive areas of shadow engulfing his face and wig. The surface of Self Portrait differs considerably from that of Hammer and Sickle: Warhol had abandoned his Seventies pursuit of rakish slurps and swipes in favor of the no-nonsense terseness of his mid-Sixties style. Given its lurid contrast of light and dark, contorted by the quasi-psychedelic swirling colors, this picture could never comply with the traditional notion of a portrait as an accurate and telling likeness. Staring, and not smiling, he resembled an ancient oracle, for example the Roman tourist attraction called the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità): that sculpture is a massive circular slab of marble adorned with a commanding face and pierced mouth. (It inspired a deliciously melodramatic episode in the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.)

This haunting canvas hung in Warhol’s first solo exhibition at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, in July 1986. There was a press blitz and paintings were purchased by American institutions and prominent collectors. This felt like a comeback to Warhol, who maintained that Manhattan’s leading museums now ignored him. (The artist had not had a major institutional show since the Whitney Museum’s Portraits of the 70s, 1979, which the mainstream press generally panned.) The show in London combined two versions of the same portrait composition: some of the backgrounds featured camouflage patterns and others used flat, evenly applied monochromatic paint. The invitation to the private view illustrated an 80 x 80-inch example of each type: the front showed a grisaille-toned camouflage picture, and the back showed a bright red monochrome.

Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys (Camouflage), 1986. Image © The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Art © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

My mind always makes connections between the death of Joseph Beuys and Warhol’s self portraits for Anthony d’Offay. Warhol first met the charismatic German artist/shaman in 1979, and he took Polaroids that were the basis of numerous paintings and prints. D’Offay began to champion Beuys in the UK in 1980. When the Beuys died in January 1986, Warhol promptly made two grand camouflage pictures silkscreened with his image; they were included in Beuys memorial that opened in Munich in July (the same month that Warhol’s new self portraits went on display in London). 3 The differences between Warhol’s 1986 elegies for Beuys and his 1986 camouflage self portraits are instructive. To bid farewell to his late friend Warhol used his favorite 1979 photograph of Beuys wearing his habitual combination of trilby hat and fishing vest. To honor the subject’s seditionary persona as an apostle of Germany’s Green Party by making the colors of the camouflage background soldierly and “real” (no yellows or pinks). And to summon a sense of heroism he centered his admiring photo likeness in an expansive, almost celestial space.

When Warhol portrayed himself that year, he presented a fatigued and concerned individual brooding and watching in isolation. He encased the head in a tight square format. Warhol had always sidestepped expectations in order to keep his fine art audience guessing: his airmail stamps, far from real, were painted (or “manufactured”) in a spirit of irony; and he turned the hammer and sickle into theatrical players in a pictorial tragicomedy. Likewise, Self Portrait shows and hides the actual Andy Warhol. The canvas is the sophisticated product of an artist trying to look his “bad” best. The poetic force of Self Portrait may stem from existential questions similar to those Paul Gaugin confronted in Tahiti during a time of personal hardship and struggle. The look on Warhol’s face brings to mind Gauguin’s title for a monumental late painting: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” 4

1. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1931).

2. Ronnie Cutrone, “Hammer and Sickle,” in Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, exhibition catalogue (C&M Arts, New York), 2002.

3. Armin Zweite, ed., Beuys zu Ehren, exhibition catalogue, (Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich), 1986.

4. Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–98, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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