Bob Colacello, “Andy Warhol, Abstraction and the Camouflage Paintings,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Camouflage, 1997 p. 9
Inherently abstract, yet immediately iconic, Camouflage from 1986 is an enduring testament to the brilliant hybridization of high and popular culture that characterizes the legendary Pop oeuvre of Andy Warhol. Spanning over thirty-three feet and reaching more than six feet high, the monumental canvas is utterly mesmerizing in its seemingly limitless repetition, the seamless continuation of green camouflage pattern forcefully articulating the visual dynamism of Warhol’s signature serialization. In its frank invocation of socio-political significance, Camouflage achieves the acerbic wit of the artist’s best work, Warhol delighting in the brilliant irony of creating an arresting abstract painting from a mass-produced print manufactured for the purposes of disguise and erasure. Simultaneously, executed in the final year before the artist’s death in 1987, the Camouflage paintings are imbued with an elegiac import; as Bob Colacello, the artist’s longtime assistant, notes, “Looking back now, it might be said that along with the Last Suppers of the same year, [the Camouflage paintings] were the perfect finale to both his life and career.” Colacello continues, “The Camouflage paintings were the culmination of both his lifelong need to disguise himself and his career-long quest to come up with an abstract art that would make the anti-Pop mandarins of the New York art world look at his work in a more favorable light.” (Bob Colacello, “Andy Warhol, Abstraction and the Camouflage Paintings,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Camouflage, 1997, p. 7) Amongst the largest of the Camouflage murals, and executed in a vibrant range of green hues that profoundly evokes the source material, the present work articulates the seductive and suggestive star quality of the artist’s earlier output. A gloriously vibrant vision of riotous abstraction, Camouflage is equal parts painting and pattern, satire and sincerity, personal significance and universal imagery; as such, the present work is a remarkable embodiment of singular Pop vision that secured Warhol’s status as one of the greatest artists of all time.
Following his work of the 1960s and 70s, decades dominated by the themes of death, commercialism, and celebrity, Warhol’s Camouflage series constituted a remarkable return to the medium of painting. While his rendering of the highly recognizable pattern is inescapably culturally loaded, any political sentiment suggested by the present work is juxtaposed by Warhol’s colorful and painterly adoption of a seemingly abstract pattern. Recalling Warhol’s attraction to the pattern, Colacello reflects, ”Of course, Andy being Andy, he couldn't resist tweaking even as he tried to please. 'What can I do,' he often asked his Factory workers, including me, 'that would be abstract, but not really abstract?'" (Ibid., p. 7) In their challenge to the self-professed ‘non-referential’ paintings of Abstract Expressionism, the Camouflage paintings are conceptually linked with Warhol’s Oxidation paintings of the late 1970s and, subsequently, the Shadow and Rorschach paintings of the 1980s. In all three of these earlier series, as in the present work, Warhol produced canvases of monumental scale and presence which overwhelm the senses but elude initial comprehension. In its calculated absorption of an internationally recognizable pattern, Camouflage takes the innovation of the Shadow and Rorschach paintings a step further, developing the notion of reality as disguise by offering up a section of army camouflage for aesthetic scrutiny. Remarking upon the striking visual tension inherent to the series, Boris Groys notes, “Warhol uses military camouflage patterns in his Camouflage paintings to make them look like modernist abstract paintings. Here, again, the visual richness and immediate aesthetic appeal of the image are ironically subverted by the suspicion that this image is not a product of spontaneous artistic inspiration but an effect of planning strategies and decision-making processes effected by a military bureaucracy…His method invariably postulates the total dominance of a rational, strategic, and political subjectivity, which perceives nothing, including itself, as nature, as ineluctable fact, as being the way it is because it is that way, but rather considers and treats everything as variable—in short, the dominance of a thoroughly modern subjectivity.” (Boris Groys, “In Search of Suspended Time,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, 2006, p. 36)
In paradigmatic Warholian form, the Camouflage paintings began with an appropriated and repurposed idea; in this case, from Jay Shriver, Warhol’s art assistant in the 1980s, who had been experimenting with painting by pushing pigment through camouflage-printed mesh. Upon seeing Shriver’s paintings, Warhol remarked, “Camouflage…we should paint camouflage.” (Brenda Richardson, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Warhol’s Camouflage” in Ibid., p. 12) The artist immediately sent Shriver to an Army surplus to purchase reels of camouflage netting, which Warhol then painstakingly arranged, photographed, and manipulated until the properties of the camouflage pattern completely obfuscated any artistic impulse towards figuration or narrative. A key component of the Warhol’s astoundingly inventive output of the 1980s, the biomorphic abstraction of Camouflage evokes descriptions of the late cut-outs of Henri Matisse: “The direct, visible process and provocative thematic decisions involved in their creation reveal additional aspects of the otherwise elusive Matisse. The paper cut-outs, furthermore, successfully embody central points of the artist’s previous intense researches in color, line, space and texture—without being a closed, ultimate statement.” (Jack Cowart, “Introduction,” in Exh. Cat. St. Louis Art Museum, Henri Matisse Paper Cut-Outs, 1977, p. 13) Likewise, while the overall effect of the camouflage pattern is amongst the most clean-cut in Warhol’s prolific corpus of silkscreen paintings, the sinuous contours and saturated forms achieving a formal purity that borders on the sublime, the Camouflage pattern also allowed Warhol to experiment and exploit the potential for variation within the process, color, size, and arrangement of his various screens. In a manner evocative of Jasper Johns' iconic Flag paintings—purely abstract and, paradoxically, highly referential—Camouflage thus refers back to Warhol’s most essential obsession with a shared, mass-produced visual language.
In the final year of his life, the camouflage print became a favored and personally significant motif for Warhol. Acting as an enigmatic ground, the pattern appears in other significant silkscreen paintings from the same year as the present work, including the iconic late self-portraits held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In these works, Warhol's employment of disguise in the act of revelation is an ironic echo of his famous declaration, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." (the artist cited in Hal Foster, “Death in America,” in Annette Michelson & Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Eds. Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p. 71) As an artist who lived a life of constant, ever-changing disguise, adopting, shifting, and discarding identities with chameleon-like ease, the Camouflage paintings may be the most profound articulation of this enigmatic Warholian statement. Reflecting upon the series, Colacello remarks, "Abstraction was not only a way to be taken more seriously, but also–and much more significantly–a refuge from difficulties of reality. In that sense, the Camouflage paintings, in all their formal abstract splendor, can be seen as true portraits of Andy Warhol’s inner-self." (Bob Colacello, “Andy Warhol, Abstraction and the Camouflage Paintings,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Camouflage, 1997 p. 9)
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