A triptych arrangement of poignant self-images in the red, white and blue of the American flag, there could not be a more apt eulogy to the most important artist of the second half of the last century, the art-world revolutionary who did more than any other to find a visual lexicon capable of documenting the changing landscape of post-war America. Like Jasper Johns' Flag, which marked the transition from Abstract Expressionism to a new aesthetic era, this suite of self-portraits is a marker of Pop, the high cultural moment of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. For three decades, Warhol's work charted the rise of America from post-war conservative repression to capitalist superpower, in turn philosophically pre-empting and predicting the celebrity and brand obsessed society in which the world lives today. In his obituary published in the Guardian the day after he died, the newspaper insightfully declared, "Probably his greatest achievement was an understanding of the new symbolism of his time. Few American artists were so quick to appreciate that the Sixties represented a revolution in American society" (Anon, 'Prophet of Anything Goes' in The Guardian, 23 February 1987). The progenitor of Pop, the arbiter of Consumerism, it was ultimately Warhol who became more famous than many of the celebrities he selected and it is therefore the self portraits which chart the rise of a brand in its own right. They were the lifeblood of his work, but of all the self portraits he made throughout his lifetime it was the 1966 works and the 1986 series which are most revered. As Georg Frei and Neil Printz have said, "Warhol's 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist" (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London and New York 2004, p. 227). These works are the final, definitive self-image that Warhol left for posterity. Executed only months before his unexpected death in hospital on 22 February 1987 while recovering from gall bladder surgery, the 1986 self-portraits are universally acknowledged as Warhol's last great artistic gesture in which he re-attains the artistic high-ground of his seminal works from the 1960s. This unique trinity of forty-inch canvases, acquired by the present owner at the time of the exhibition at Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1986, on the eve of Warhol's untimely death, is the only such group known to remain together.
Andy Warhol's Self-Portraiture
Like Rembrandt and Bacon, Warhol returned to the genre of self-portraiture regularly throughout his career, using his own appearance to record the changing times of his life. More than any artist before him, Warhol's image, identity and constructed public persona were inextricably bound to his art, making the self-portraits some of the richest and most fertile sites for his artistic invention. Witnessing the conjunction of Warhol's celebrity subject matter and his personal fame, they result in an ironic layering of subject and author. Renowned for his candid depictions of stage and screen luminaries, Warhol was drawn to his subjects by the potent combination of celebrity, vulnerability and death. Through his screenprinting process, which Warhol coined and made his own, he depicted Marilyn, Elvis and Liz with the same dispassionate technique employed in the seminal Campbell's Soup Can paintings, packaged and commodified as marketable icons. In doing so, he intuitively understood the mechanics of an increasingly consumer-driven society.
Warhol made the first self-portrait of his mature career in 1963, in which his appearance is masked by dark glasses and the graininess of the then new screen-printing process, followed by a subsequent small series in 1964, similarly based on a photo-booth source photograph. The emergence of the self-portraits charted a turning point for Warhol: now, among the images of the rich and famous, he became an icon in his own visual repertoire. By 1966, the year of his third great series of self-images, he was a star in his own right; an artist, musician and increasingly acclaimed film maker whose constructed public persona was almost as famous as his artistic production. Propelled into the public limelight, the world now bestowed on him the same degree of celebrity status that he found so intriguing and captivating in those that he chose to depict. In his archetypal 1966 portraits, at once iconic and iconoclastic, Warhol succeeds in capturing on canvas the most alluring and elusive star in his firmament of celebrity: himself. It was not until twenty years later, in the series to which the present works belong, that Warhol would find an equivalently powerful self-image. While in the 1960s, Warhol was an aloof commentator on the consumer culture that was sweeping through an economically prosperous America, by the time of the present work he and his art had become synonymous with contemporary American culture itself. Such was his fame and the success of his artistic vision that it shaped the worlds of art, fashion, film and the media throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The present work's current owner recalls Warhol's arrival at the dinner held at the Café Royal after the opening of the show in July 1986, "Andy made his grand entrance, preceded by a camera and lighting crew reversing into the banquet room like a troupe of royal handmaidens laying a carpet of petals for some deity, the ultimate superstar". In his last Self-Portraits, the ever insightful commentator packages and presents himself - here on the same forty-inch scale that he had used for his iconic depictions of Marilyn and Liz in the 1960s - as a product to be consumed by the machinery of the commodity culture which he himself helped to define.
The Last Portraits
While the 1963 and 1964 self-portraits were based on a photo-mat strip of photographs, in the 1986 series Warhol uses a Polaroid photograph as his source image, a technique which he had refined in his portraiture throughout the 1970s. Wearing a black turtle-neck sweater and one of his many elaborate wigs, in his diaries Warhol recalls the making of the image, "At the office Sam tried to take pictures of me that I needed to work from for the Self Portraits for the English show, and I'd done my hair in curlers and everything and he just couldn't get it right" (the artist cited in Jennifer Higgie, 'Andy Warhol' in Frieze, 5th September 1996). Comparing the final canvases to the original image, it is evident that Warhol chose the image in which his top best covered his neck. In this way, Warhol makes his body disappear entirely, so that his severed head hovers in space like the severed Head of the Medusa.
Here more than in any other of his self-portraits, Warhol tackles the challenge of self-depiction with an unrivalled and up-close theatricality, presenting an image both of Warhol the man and Warhol the artistic phenomenon. As David Bourdon observes, "Warhol's visage by this time was, of course, almost totally invented: the hair belonged to one of dozens of wigs, the skin had been dermatologically transformed and constantly taughtened through the use of astringents, and the sunken cheeks had been smoothed out with collagen injections" (David Bourdon, Andy Warhol, New York 1989, p. 402). In the present three works, Warhol exposes his starkly isolated, distinctive appearance to our sharp scrutiny in unparalleled photographic detail. His last self-portrait catalogues the transformation in his ageing features in parallel to the technical transformation in his art from maverick to master. Using his face as an arena for technical and compositional experimentation, by now Warhol had harnessed and honed to sheer perfection the silkscreen process which he had introduced to fine art practice in the early 1960s. While the 1966 self-portraits are characterised by often rough printing and serendipitous outcomes, here the image is of such controlled clarity that it resounds in our memory even when we cease to look. The silkscreen captures every minutiae and contour of Warhol's features, from his sunken cheeks, the slight jowls around his pursed lip and that incredibly penetrating stare. If Warhol's credo was the seductive surface, here it reaches its apogee, in the flawlessly slick, black, even lamina of ink which lends the three works a surface unity worthy of the clean, flat surfaces predicated by Minimalism. Unlike his works from the 1970s which had thick, brushy acrylic surfaces, here Warhol returns to the ineluctable flatness of the picture plane
Conventionally, self-portraits reveal the private side of a public profession, the visual equivalent of the personal correspondence or diaries of an author. Canonical self-portraits from Dürer to Cézanne and in particular Bacon are intimate explorations of the self, unedited and brutally honest. Openly acknowledging the artifice and deception inherent in any form of representation, Warhol, in his 1960s self-portraits, presented himself as a figment, a constructed fiction, a series of personas as affected and contrived as his own public image. In the present work, although he is wearing his trademark wig, Warhol removes the glasses and stares directly out of the canvas with unprecedented directness. For the first and only time, in the 1986 self-portraits the shy, elusive Warhol, who preferred to hide behind an elaborate public persona, candidly exposes himself to our scrutiny. In doing so, the quintessential flaneur of his age himself becomes the object of our gaze and his 1967 statement, grossly disingenuous at the time, finally comes true "If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, my movies and me and there I am; there's nothing in between" (the artist cited in Gretchen Berg, 'Andy: My True Story,' in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
Warhol had an obsessive preoccupation with sudden death, even before Valerie Solanas entered the Factory and shot him, nearly killing him, on 3rd June 1968. This morbid fascination is openly reflected in his work, especially in the often gruesome Death and Disaster and Electric Chair series. Here, the mysterious image of the artist's gaunt features reflects this lifelong fascination with the transience of life, and seems to convey an awareness of his own impending death. While there is no way that Warhol could have known what fate had in store for him, there is an almost tangible sense of the ageing artist confronting his own mortality. Like Rembrandt's final self-portrait from 1669 in the National Gallery, London, there is a sense that the artist is depicting himself as if on the brink of eternity. Rembrandt, a prolific self-portraitist, like Warhol always depicted himself playing a role, so that throughout his canon of over forty self-portraits we never sense that we know the true man behind the mask, until the final self-portrait, made only months before he died. Rembrandt's last image, like the present work by Warhol, shows the artist reflecting on the transience of life and his own mortality. In both, a sense of the ultimate moment fills the work, as if this is the summa of an entire lifetime's work. As John Caldwell noted of Warhol's last series, "The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness. Perhaps this comes in part from the fact that the artist's neck is invisible, or it may derive from the oddly lit nimbus of hair that seems posed forever over his head. Certainly, the portrait derives part of its power from the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon" (Anon., 'A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie', Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January - February 1987, p. 9).
Despite their colours and high-keyed tonality, these are bleak faces, moribund like a spectral head of John the Baptist. Set against the inky black background, Warhol's disembodied head takes on the resemblance of a skull, the consummate vanitas motif, a reminder of the ubiquity of life and death. Warhol had already explored this motif of the memento mori, first in a series of Skulls from 1976 and subsequently in a small series of self-portraits with a skull made two years later when the artist was fifty. In the present series, however, Warhol himself becomes the vanitas object. The heightened contrast emphasises the bone structure of the skull below the taught skin, particularly in the lavender self-portrait which seems to accentuate the artist's gaunt features and pallor. As Warhol's friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled, the public's immediate reaction to these works when they were exhibited was one of shock, with many viewers leaving the show deeply moved. "Some spectators interpreted the pictures as a memento mori, an unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality" (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 402).
These final self-portraits create a striking visual echo of Edvard Munch's celebrated Self-portrait with Skeleton's Arm. Together with Munch's The Scream, this image must have made an impact on Warhol, because he appropriated both motifs to make his own versions of the Expressionist masterpieces in his Art from Art series two years prior. As Robert Rosenblum says of the 1986 self-portraits, "Warhol's last self-portraits appear to fuse these two doom laden works. The Scream reaches a fever-pitch of distress with what looks like a floating, androgynous skull looming towards us. As for the Self-Portrait with a Skeleton Arm, it, too, offers a ghostly apparition of a bodiless head, this time in a black void whose meaning is made clear by the bones... that, like a corpse, lie below what looks like the artist's sudden awareness of the inevitable. Warhol's intimate knowledge of these works must have directed him towards his final self-portrait images" (Robert Rosenblum, 'Andy Warhol's Disguises' in Exhibition Catalogue, St. Gallen Kunstverein Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, 2004 p. 28). Pausing to consider his own mortality, Warhol's image resembles a Death Mask - the practice which has existed since Roman times of casting the features of the deceased in wax to commemorate and record their likeness for posterity - or rather a life mask, like that made of William Blake in the early Nineteenth Century and subsequently depicted by Francis Bacon in the mid 1950s. In Bacon's painting, the pallid face is reproduced floating against a dark background. Purportedly an index of life, like Warhol's last self-portrait it is implicitly evocative of death.
Immortalising the mysterious and enigmatic artistic persona that Warhol had meticulously cultivated throughout his career, the present group of self-portraits is his swan song before the curtain came down on one of the most prodigious careers in the History of Art. As Robert Rosenblum says, "Always theatrical, [Warhol] now donned his fright wig for a series of self-portraits that... we are tempted to experience as a last will and testament" (Robert Rosenblum, 'Andy Warhol's Disguises' in Exhibition Catalogue, St. Gallen Kunstverein Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, 2004 p. 26).
The Multiple Portrait
In its present triptych format, this final masterpiece invites comparison with one of the last century's other great self-portraitists, Francis Bacon. The Irish artist favoured the triptych format for its sequential, filmic qualities, elements which would have doubtless appealed to Warhol's understanding of the cinematic genre and his fascination with seriality. Here, the high-keyed palette of cadmium red light, phthalo blue and lavender white, strongly augment the emotional intensity of the work. Red: the colour of blood habitually reserved for some of Warhol's most concentrated and important compositions; blue: the most artificial colour in Warhol's palette, used with devastating aplomb in the Jackie series of 1963; and lavender white: the most haunting of the three, dramatically and eerily prescient of Warhol's imminent death and simultaneously evocative of the Lavender Disaster paintings from the early 1960s. Acutely aware of the ability of colour to animate his subjects and inflect meaning, Warhol found that by juxtaposing canvases of different colours it amplified the sonority of the artistic statement. In the present triptych, the effect of the whole is more significant than the sum of its parts, particularly as the various possible juxtaposed colours offer the viewer different readings of the work. Ever since the Ethel Scull commission in 1963, Warhol understood the power of working in multi-panel, multicoloured compositions, which allowed him to exploit the given image to its limit. In his portraiture, this allowed him to explore the subtle nuances and permutations of the sitter, creating extra sensitivity through repetition. This is how he chose to exhibit his works - as a series - from the time of his breakthrough Campbell's Soup exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 onwards. Yet it is rare today to find such series still intact, making the present group exceptional. Exhibited in linear sequence as the artist initially intended, the presence of the repeated image here further rarefies an already iconic portrait of the artist. Warhol, more than anyone, understood the mechanics of impact and here the reiteration of his face here only serves to increase the power of the single image, reminiscent of his seminal Triple Elvis from 1963. Indeed the three disembodied heads can fuse to create a single image, as our eye scans horizontally from one to the other, never resting as no single head dominates. By repeating his self-representation, Warhol reveals in these pictures a fractured self-image where unity only exists in multiplicity. This multiplicity, in turn, raises fundamental questions about the genre of self-portraiture itself: how can a complex, layered personality be reduced to a single image? Through mechanical reproduction and anonymous facture, Warhol's multiple self-portraits contradict the genre's ideal of intimate self expression; yet in fact, in harnessing the technique of the screen-print to such unbridle d international success, the resulting image is anything but anonymous. On the contrary, Warhol's image is here packaged and presented in his own inimitable and instantly recognisable brand of Pop, on a par with his 1960s portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Liz Taylor.
Executed twenty years after the artist's last great series of self-portraits, this acclaimed series of final portraits was first unveiled by Anthony d'Offay at his London gallery in July 1986, the first and only show in Warhol's career dedicated to the theme of self-portraiture. The gallerist recalls the genesis of the series: "I realised two things: first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th century, and secondly that it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait. A week later I visited Warhol in New York and suggested to him an exhibition of new self-portraits. A month later he had a series of images to show me in all of which he was wearing the now famous 'fright wig'. One of the images not only had a demonic aspect but reminded me more of a death mask. I felt it was tempting fate to choose this image, so we settled instead on a self-portrait with a hypnotic intensity ..." (Anthony d'Offay, cited in Exhibition Catalogue, Andy Warhol, Self Portraits, Kunstverein St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum, 2004 p. 131). This remarkable image became the anchor for one of his greatest exhibitions in a commercial gallery. Works were executed in a variety of sizes and forms but there were only six made in the classic 40 inch square size with which he had depicted Marilyn, Liz and Jackie. Of these, two (pink and green) went to one collection which was sold at auction in 1998 and the other (yellow) went to a different collection and was sold at auction in 2003. This is thus the only group of three left, which are signed and dated from the original show.
Today, works from this landmark exhibition grace the collections of Tate, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Andy Warhol, 1986-87
Each: 40 by 40in.; 101.6 by 101.6cm.
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1987