Since childhood, Warhol had always had a fascination with celebrity and maintained a collection of autographs. Upon his move to New York in 1949, the art editor of Glamour fashion magazine, Tina Fredericks, purchased one of his drawings which led to the commission of a series of shoe illustrations. Shortly afterward, Warhol’s talents were in high demand and featured in magazines such as Vogue, The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar. Through his ties with the fashion industry, Warhol was in close contact with New York’s rich and famous. His celerity portraits took off in 1962 when Warhol commemorated the death of Marilyn Monroe by creating a series of portraits of her likeness. Many critics have observed how Warhol’s artistic process mirrors the nature of celebrity itself where icons become commodities to be bought and sold.
To create his portraits, Warhol employed a semi-mechanised silk-screening process that allowed him to mass-produce his images. Beginning with a camera, Warhol would take rolls upon rolls of pictures of his subjects using a Polaroid camera. Often referring to his camera as his ‘pencil and paper’, Warhol used it as a filter with which to mediate his interaction with the world. Warhol was keenly aware of the potential of photography to shape meaning and to both reflect and reaffirm the wider cultural obsessions of the American public. Warhol’s captivation with the ephemerality of popular culture, as well as his concern with appearances and representation, make the Polaroid a fitting medium for his portraits. This Polaroid would then be blown up and converted into a negative which Warhol used to trace the sitter’s features onto the canvas from which he would create a silkscreen.
This process results in an idealised interpretation of his subject composed of simplified, colourful shapes. Society Portrait of Susie (Lavender) provides the perfect example: with her barely-there nose and lack of tonal variation in her flesh, Susie Solomon is reduced to her most basic elements while still maintaining her likeness. Warhol was recorded as saying: "I'll paint anybody. Anybody that asks me. I just try to make people look good" (Andy Warhol cited in: Jonathan Jones, ‘The Polaroid Production Line’, The Guardian, October 2008, online). Warhol understood the superficial nature of celebrity in American society; the mask created by marketing companies to commodify public figures that reveal little to nothing about the actual person behind it. Through Warhol’s mechanised and minimalizing silkscreen process, “everyone was a star, not only for fifteen minutes, but, in this incarnation caught permanently on canvas, ‘forever’” (Henry Geldzahler, 'Andy Warhol: Virginal Voyeur', in: Exh Cat., Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol: Portraits, 1993, p. 26).
Modestly referring to himself as ‘just a travelling society painter’, Warhol’s innovative reinterpretation of portraiture is now hailed as having revived a dead art form. In this way, Society Portrait of Susie (Lavender) locates itself at the intersection of tradition and popular culture, thereby representing not only a critical moment in Pop Art but in art history writ large.
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