Andy Warhol's monumental Self Portrait from 1986 is a powerful image pulsates with energy conveyed through its confrontational frontality. Emerging from an inky black aura and shaded with deep contours, this most recognizable artist of all time simultaneously appears and disappears in front of our eyes. As an artistic genre, self-portraiture by a painter is a traditionally evocative subject for critical study. When the artist is Warhol, the theme is especially rich since the slippage between public and private identity was a central motif in his art as in his life. Warhol's radically innovative approach to subject matter and to artistic technique was ideal for investigation of the self-portrait and he would revisit the genre throughout his oeuvre. Warhol's celebrity centered on the self-invented and intriguing public persona that he created during interviews and public events. Among his images of the famous that established Pop art in the 1960s, he also became an icon in his own visual repertoire. Belonging to his 1986 self-portraits, the last before his untimely death, this painting encapsulates Warhol's attitude toward presenting his outer self, tempting us with the thought that he might finally let us glimpse his most intimate inner self.
By portraying himself through different decades of his life, Warhol became the most important subject matter of his many portraits. More than any artist before him, Warhol's image, identity and cultural persona were inextricably bound to his art. Witnessing the conjunction of Warhol's celebrity subject matter and his personal fame, the self-portraits result in an ironic layering of subject and author. Warhol made the first mature self-portrait of his career in 1963, in which his appearance is masked by dark glasses and the graininess of the then new screen process, followed by a subsequent small series in 1964, similarly based on a photo-booth photograph. These photo-booth portraits began with the commissioned portrait of the collector Ethel Scull. A sitting in a photo-booth resulted in a strip of four images that exist as a montage over a short time span. At first Warhol used all four images and then in the 1964 Self-Portrait series he removed just one image from the strip yet produced the paintings in a broader range of background colors. As with the Marilyn and Liz paintings, Warhol's use of local color can be evocative and individual as the style of hair, the degree of sophistication and the mood of the face can alter based on the application of color from canvas to canvas.
By 1966, the year of his third great series of self-images, he was a star in his own right whose constructed public persona was almost as famous as his artistic production. Propelled into the public limelight, Warhol captured on canvas his role as the most alluring and elusive star in this most fertile site of artistic self-discovery. The introspective hand to mouth pose fading into the shadows is at once revealing and mysterious. Warhol is showing only a particular side of himself while still concealing something from the viewer. It was not until 20 years later, in the series to which the present work belongs, that Warhol would find an equivalently powerful self image. In the 1960s, Warhol was an aloof commentator on the consumer culture that was sweeping a prosperous America. By 1986, he and his art were synonymous with contemporary American culture. Over time, the works had become increasingly complicated.
Although the present monumental purple and black canvas is by far the largest format for any Warhol self-portrait and could be viewed as the most disconnected from reality because of size alone, it is also the most raw and intimate look into the artist in the last months of his life. Possibly it is a clarity that comes with approaching death that allowed Warhol to forgo his vanity and be confident enough to reveal his entire face. Warhol was always intrigued by the human face. Here, for the first time, the artist's own features take center stage in an impactful masterpiece that leaves the artist exposed. Resembling the canonical self-portraits from Dürer to Cézanne to Bacon, this is an intimate exploration of the self, unedited and brutally honest. The present work is both a continuation of and assault on that tradition. The process of the photographic silkscreen satisfied a need for resemblance and allowed Warhol to manipulate contrasts and highlight certain areas while blowing out others. In the 1971 interview with Gretchen Berg "Nothing to Lose", Warhol states, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." This was a prophetic statement of where his self-portrait painting would ultimately end. In the present work, Warhol gives us 11,644 square inches of painting surface, and about half of that is his visage. He is there for us to confront and yet disappears into inky black ominous darkness - a disembodied head poised for analysis.
The genesis of this series came from Anthony d'Offay, Warhol's London dealer, who approached the artist about a solely self-portrait show. Together they chose a photograph that would be the source of these works; a frontal portrait of Warhol wearing one of his signature wigs that was, at once, eerie, flamboyant and shocking. Warhol then decided to use another image from the 'fright wig' group that was a far more severe and difficult portrayal of the artist, from which the present work would ultimately evolve. In this image, Warhol's eyes appear more deeply sunken below his spiked hair, his cheeks gaunt, slight jowls around his pursed lip and an incredibly penetrating stare. 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. The silkscreen captures every minutiae and contour of Warhol's features. When d'Offay discovered that Warhol had chosen a different image from the agreed upon version, he requested Warhol re-do the series for the exhibition, using the original choice with fuller features and a less severe overall effect. The show was met with critical and commercial success. D'Offay commented in 1986, "The feel of the show is so deathly; I mean there has always been death in his works, suicides, disasters, and so on. But this has a terrible melancholy about it, a feeling of introspection, of looking backwards, and the one thing I kept thinking about was the relationship of this to, well, the great late self-portraits, people like – one doesn't dare say it – Rembrandt, Van Gogh – a kind of moodiness, a kind of inwardness, a kind of darkness, a kind of loneliness and this is a whole new world for Andy, and it suddenly clicks into place with the whole history of tragic late self-portraiture." (Robert Rosenblum in a television interview with Anthony d'Offay from the time of Andy Warhol at Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1986)
With the Death and Disaster series and the Electric Chairs, Warhol had exhibited a preoccupation with sudden death, even before Valerie Solanas entered the Factory and nearly killed him in 1968. In the present work, the mysterious image of the artist's features 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 a tangible sense of the artist confronting his own mortality and many consider this series to be a memento mori. As John Caldwell noted, "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." (A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie", Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January – February 1987, p. 9)
It is believed that only five of the 108 in. square format self-portraits depicting this exact image exist. Three are known to be in museums: yellow and blue versions are in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and a green version at the Fort Worth Art Museum. There is a red version in a private collection and the present purple version completes the quintet. The rich purple gives this work a regal presence and recalls Warhol's Lavender Disaster from 1963, also measuring 108 in. high, connecting an image of the Death and Disaster series with the present work. This landmark painting is truly a culmination of everything Warhol stood for at the time and will be remembered for in art history – a potent combination of innovation, celebrity, vulnerability and death.
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie; London, Tate Modern; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol Retrospective, October 2001 - August 2002, cat. no. 237, p. 279, illustrated in color (size listed incorrectly as 80 x 80 in.)
108 x 108 in. 274.3 x 274.3 cm.
Estate of the Artist
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., New York
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London (acquired from the above in 1998)
Acquired by the present owner from the above