The present work, Work Boots, is a striking example from a distinctive and significant series of artworks that Andy Warhol produced in the mid-1980s, a series often referred to simply as the Black & White Ads series. For the graphically bold and visually striking paintings in the Black & White Ads series, Warhol brought together the mechanically produced silkscreen technique he had become so famous for, in combination with a free application of paint on canvas applied by hand. “Warhol’s freehand draftsmanship and fluid brushwork enliven the surface of these works, which are essentially silkscreened reproductions of his original drawings. The duality of the hand and the machine are at work here. [They are] a remarkable group of paintings that exemplify his exploration of the dialectic between hand painting and mechanical reproduction. In these Ads, Warhol toys mischievously with the illusory potential of hand and mechanical processes, putting a new spin on trompe-l’oeil painting” (Joseph Ketner, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, Milwaukee 2009, p. 33).
During this period of the mid-80s Warhol had been collaborating on paintings with the much younger emerging painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and working with Basquiat may have encouraged Warhol to go back to applying paint by hand again. In selecting the ads that he would use, Warhol looked for those with hand-painted illustrations and lettering. The Black & White Ads series revisits the limitless cultural repository of signs and symbols to be found in the media world of commodities, celebrity culture, and, specific to the current work, popular music. Ready-mades in the manner of Marcel Duchamp, the advertising images represent the culture speaking back to us, by way of the artist.
The subjects in this series ranged quite broadly in topic and in time period, from advertisements for items such as motorcycles and Campbell’s Soup to bodybuilding and alternative medicines, to political topics such as the US federal deficit and global militarism. Warhol raided his past work for mass culture media images, these images reflecting both larger social events and trends as well as seeming to have personal resonance for Warhol in these the last few years of his life. References to high culture and low culture subjects abound in this series, as in much of Warhol’s entire body of work. The series revisits, in subject matter and in concept, some of Warhol’s earliest fine art works, in particular his paintings of advertisements from the period of 1960-1961. The choice of shoes as a subject for Work Boots is not coincidental; Warhol had been drawing shoes as subjects from his early years as a commercial artist, and he had continued to include shoes as a motif right up through his work of the 1980s. Shoes encompass the same high/low culture as so many other subjects of Warhol’s. They reference commercial culture, street culture, and the shoe as fetish object. When viewing the final decade of Warhol’s career, it is visible that his oeuvre has come full circle and the artist re-uses images he had become so well known for and elevating them into a new style.