With a celebrity that rivaled the Hollywood stars that Warhol idolized, Nelson Rockefeller variously inhabited the roles of vivacious art collector, philanthropist and prominent public figure. One of Warhol’s earliest celebrity portraits, the present work is significant for it is in the latter capacity that Warhol chose to portray him: as Rockefeller, the politician—under siege and alone, battling against a sea of press microphones. Appropriating his imagery from a press photograph, Warhol captured the intensity and focus of Governor Rockefeller mid-speech, the graininess of the screen and the outsize impression of power it carries communicating the intensity of the subject’s beliefs and convictions.
Amongst Warhol’s most monumental portraits of the late 1960s, the present work was commissioned by Rockefeller along with three other panels and installed in a quadripartite, frieze-like arrangement. The other panels have since dispersed and now reside in important collections including the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Uniquely distinguished by their bold format and colorful, vivid compositions, the present work is exemplary for its marriage of subject matter and composition, its bold tones alighting Rockefeller’s gaze a paragon of Warhol at his best.
Warhol’s early successes as a fashion illustrator had revealed an intuitive awareness for crafting compositions that could play on the tenets of mass imagery, and thus generate widespread appeal. In the present work, the artist builds upon this commercial foundation to communicate a message written into the interplay of line, color and appropriated imagery on the canvas. Reflecting his sensitivity to the individual character of the subject, the composite strains of Nelson Rockefeller’s persona are dynamically constructed through bold planes of overlapping vibrant color and brought to life by the distinctive off registration of the screen print. Locked between valences of tone, looking out into the distance, Warhol captures his subject’s true essence, powerful yet confined, an icon of American politics, wealth and celebrity now long gone.
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