Warhol continued to be inspired and fascinated by beautiful female celebrities throughout his career. Harry, a striking bottle-blonde haired New Jersey native with an effervescent personality, had moved to New York City to launch her music career. She was a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, a meeting place for artists and musicians and a favorite hangout for Warhol and his entourage. Blondie, a punk band named for the diva lead singer’s nickname, was immediately a huge success. The group launched their debut album in 1976, had their first European tour in 1977 and by 1978 Harry and the band were global superstars. She epitomized the overnight celebrity fame that infatuated Warhol, and in 1979, she graced the cover of his celebrity centered magazine Interview. Her fame, her beauty, and their friendship, made the rockstar an instant muse for the artist. Debbie Harry frequently appeared on Warhol’s TV show, once wearing a day-glo camouflage head to toe outfit, which she insisted he sign while on her body, inspired by the artist's camouflage paintings.
Debbie Harry sits squarely in the lineage of great portraiture that links the artist’s images of the stellar trinity of Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s with his final fright-wig self portraits in the 1980s. The world-renowned earlier portraits of his iconic women anticipated the greatest portraits of the 1980s, from Debbie Harry to the remarkable late self-portraits, consistently maintaining an uninterrupted engagement with the viewer and bold use of color. Like the early portraits of female stage stars, Debbie Harry reveals Warhol’s lifelong fascination with celebrity and beauty; like his final self portraits, it exhibits the sheer perfection of Warhol’s flawless silkscreen technique, honed and refined over two decades.
By 1980, Warhol had mastered his silkscreen technique, and the present work demonstrates a wonderful balance between the crisp record of the overall form, together with softer, more subtle areas of screen that shape the shadows around her eyes, cheek and neck. Warhol’s technical perfection allows him to explore the various nuances available to him within the silkscreen medium in this particular work. Harry’s striking features almost leap from the canvas, unimpeded by brushwork or experimental techniques. In this process, once Warhol had chosen a photograph that would become the basis of the portrait, the image was sent off to a fine art printer, usually Chromacomp Inc., to be turned into a silkscreen, which Warhol would transfer to canvas. By using high contrast Polaroids, Warhol was able to play with the strong areas of black in the features and the bold pockets of color in the blown out areas. The heightened photographic detail of Debbie Harry links her to Warhol’s Marilyn paintings where this method was first explored. The final stage of his process was the most crucial; Warhol would unleash the extraordinary combinations of acids and pastels for which he was renowned to enhance the subject’s natural features. Debbie Harry is unusually technically complex, featuring many different layers of color; a level of care and detail that Warhol only paid to the subjects he considered to be the most fascinating and worthy of his attention. Lips and eyes were always a particular area of focus within the portraits, and in this work, Warhol juxtaposes Harry’s blue eye shadow, dark mascara, red lips, and distinctly strong bone structure against golden hair and like-colored background. Harry’s eyes gaze directly into those of the onlooker, a distinctively Warholian tease, whilst her glossy, voluptuous lips purse in a seductive pout.
The full frame composition, the arresting gaze of the subject and the alluring purse of the lips all lend to the plasticity of the work and exacerbate the carnality and sensuality of the subject matter. With shadows sharply delineated against the curves of her face, she appears to be caught in the glare of a paparazzi flash, yet the cool and collected expression indicates a woman firmly in control of her public persona and supremely confident in the power of her beauty. By selecting the unusual 42-inch format, Warhol ensures that the style icon’s features project from the canvas with immense power, almost in the manner of a votive icon to be worshipped and adored; yet Debbie Harry is an intensely contemporary icon which glorifies celebrity and fame.
Here, Harry is an homage not only to an icon at the height of her powers, but also to the celebrity lifestyle that she represented, one which Warhol sought to enhance and commemorate by means of elevating a humble photograph to a level beyond realism, seeking to perpetuate the myth of a celebrity. Warhol’s focus on celebrity simultaneously distances us from his subjects’ stardom and brings them closer to us by screening and immortalizing their image.
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