The powerful lyricism and stark elegance of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach hovers over the viewer like a mysterious totem, presenting a pictorial marriage of beauty and precision in one of the final and most triumphant paintings of his career. Painted in 1985, Warhol’s Rorschach is based on the synonymous inkblot test developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach just after World War I. A striking arrangement of two monumentally-scaled paintings, this diptych displays a fundamental pictorial balance in which the opposing forces of black and white complement each other in a dialectical relationship. As an artist, Warhol has long sought imagery laden with meaning, and in Rorschach, he appropriates the genre of abstraction in his endless search for new and meaningful images. The towering paintings easily integrate the lyricism of Matisse, the spontaneity of Pollock and the cool brashness of Christopher Wool. Though they appear purely abstract, the works are charged with subliminal meaning. Like the inkblot tests upon which they are based, the true significance of each painting requires the viewer’s imagination to decipher it, so that beneath the beauty of its surface imagery, the painting is loaded with private mysteries and hidden desires. Created during the last decade of his life, Warhol’s Rorschach paintings are some of the most compelling and intellectual of his career.
These Rorschach paintings, by nature of their monolithic proportions, dominate the room. In the black-on-white canvas, Warhol’s totemic forms unfurl from the surface with vigor and abundance through the deep, inky black paint that has been spread and compressed, dripped and dragged over a vast field of creamy white. The painting has an interior life all of its own that goes on within the surface of Warhol’s canvas; the viscosity of the black pigment is heavy and opaque in places, pooling in some areas and in others it still retains the “lifted” feeling of being pulled away where the canvas was unfolded from its center. In these places, the dynamism of Warhol’s process can still be palpably felt, especially in the splatters and drips that punctuate the outer edges of the canvas as if in syncopated rhythm. Like other great painters who delved into the world of black paintings, such as Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, and also Velazquez and Goya, Warhol exploits the great emotive power of the color black. His canvas reaches out from a deep shadowy world. With a primal pull, its enigmatic forms emerge from the surface and reach into the viewer’s subliminal mind. It’s the stuff of secrets, the inky blackness of shadows and nightfall, of what goes on under the cover of darkness and the ancient mysteries of the universe. Warhol has once remarked, “If you want to know about me, just look at the surface of my paintings,” and never has his statement felt more apt.
The compositions that Warhol used to create his Rorschach were totally improvised. He was not aware that he could simply copy Hermann Rorschach’s set of ten inkblot designs, so he asked his assistant Jay Shriver to create a small set of four inkblots. He began the series in the Spring of 1983, according to a diary entry that is dated May 14 “Did two big Rorschachs and they looked kind of good,” (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 501). Though the original inkblots developed by Rorschach included colored ink, Warhol deliberately limited his palette in order to enhance the subliminal and emotive content of his inky black forms “I didn’t want to go into color because then you go crazy and you have to think about color. You have one more thing to think about” (A. Warhol, quoted in Robert Nickas, “Andy Warhol’s Rorschach Test,” Arts Magazine, vol. 61, no. 2, 1986, p. 28).
The inkblots were enlarged to a previously unheard of scale that resulted from Warhol’s recent acquisition of an abandoned Con Edison power plant that took up five stories and included a 14,000-square-foot-loft. The Rorschachs were among the first works created in this new studio, which was in fact the first factory space that Warhol actually owned, having purchased the building for 1.2 million dollars. Ironically, its location was only a few blocks from the old apartment he had shared with his mother in the 1950s at 242 Lexington Avenue. This space signaled a serious new era for the artist. The staff were well-groomed, answering the phone with “Warhol Studio” rather than “Warhol Factory.” Jay Shriver recalls “By then 860 [Broadway] was just an empty 14,000-square-foot loft, left for Andy to paint in. That’s when the paintings get really huge. We could back up the overhead projector the length of a football field from the wall. He could get any scale he wanted. And nobody was there to bother him. That’s what enabled the Rorschachs” (J. Shriver, quoted in J. D. Ketner II, “Warhol’s Last Decade: Reinventing Painting,” Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, 2009, p. 45).
The physical process required to create each Rorschach painting was labor-intensive, creative and spontaneous. After rolling the raw canvas onto the floor, a center line was marked with graphite that divided the canvas in half vertically. This would become the fold line. Warhol then poured black pigment onto the canvas in abstract arrangements that appear to have been made by chance but actually resulted from great control. After he was satisfied with the image, he and the studio assistants would fold the empty half of the canvas on top of the painted one, pressing and squeezing so that a mirror-image would result, producing a symmetrical design. Shriver recalls “Andy painted the big ones, and that’s why he was having so much fun. … We had these huge canvases that we had to fold over and press together so that the paint was evenly distributed on both halves of the canvas. We took some of the huge dowels, on which the canvas was shipped, and Andy, Augusto [Bugarin], Benjamin [Liu], and myself would get on our hands and knees, rolling the dowels and patting the canvas to get an even pressure across the entire surface. … The physical energy spent laboring over these massive canvases generated a great deal of excitement in the studio. Warhol would duck away from appointments in the “office” to work in the back studio because he was having so much fun” (J. Shriver, quoted in J. D. Ketner II, ibid., p. 45).
During the last decade of his life, Warhol increasingly searched for newer, more meaningful imagery. Increasingly, he turned to abstraction as a means of pictorial design, which he first explored in the Oxidation paintings of the late 70s, and continued with the Shadows, Rorschachs and Camouflage paintings. Friends of Warhol were skeptical of this foray, saying to him “But you’re Andy Warhol. You have to paint things” (J. D. Ketner II, ibid., p. 20), but critics have hailed the abstractions, often comparing the Rorschachs with the rhythmic gestures of Pollock and the stain paintings of Morris Louis. Indeed, the Rorschach canvases emulate the “participatory aesthetics” of Pollock, and it is tempting to imagine Warhol stepping into and out of his raw piece of un-stretched canvas, unrolled on the floor of his new studio, methodically pouring black pigment and alternatively splattering and throwing drops of paint, much like Pollock as captured in Hans Namuth’s 1950 film. Warhol had always had a sneaking admiration for the power and audacity of Abstract Expressionism and longed to emulate the same degree of emotive power in his work. The Rorschachs recall the Abstract Expressionist’s fascination with the collective unconscious and the type of automatic writing espoused by the Surrealists. Even Jackson Pollock was said to have undergone Rorschach testing himself.
The harmonious balance of Warhol’s Rorschach diptych results from the dynamic interrelationship between the two paintings, one rendered in black Liquitex, the other in white. Warhol’s subtle play of white on white allows each form to slowly emerge before our eyes like a surprise discovery. Rendered in white paint upon a white background, the canvas may at first act like a blank, calling to mind the diptychs of the 60s, such as Mustard Race Riot in which he used a blank canvas as a foil to the graphic imagery of its painted counterpart. Upon further examination, the contrast between the white pigment of the painted rorschach design and the primed canvas is subtle but real, and its mysterious imagery slowly materializes. This ghosted Rorschach beseeches its viewer in further analysis, to delve into the symbolic properties of the color white. As the opposite of black, white often represents light in contrast to darkness, having long been associated in Western civilization with innocence, purity and virtue. Conversely, in Eastern religions white is often worn in funeral ceremonies, where it is more closely aligned with death, but also reincarnation. Warhol himself was secretly devout, making daily visits to St. Vincent Ferrer, a Roman Catholic Church in midtown Manhattan. In the last years of his life, it is possible that Warhol might have imbued these paintings—already so laden with deep-seated subliminal imagery—with larger concepts of the divine, perhaps hinting at a sublime vision that sought to remedy the eternal unanswerable questions surrounding life and death.
Diptych - acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 85' (on the overlap of each element)
Andy Warhol , 1980s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Paris, Renos Xippas Gallery, The Painted Desert, June 1991 (illustrated in brochure).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
each: 90 x 70 in. (228.5 x 177.8 cm.)
Alexander Iolas, Athens
Renos Xippas, Paris
Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 2007, lot 35
Private collection, Warren, New Jersey
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 28 June 2011, lot 61
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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