Principal to Andy Warhol's reputation as the most significant and influential visual artist of the later Twentieth Century is his obsession with the iconic and with death, and his revolution in image repetition. More than any others, these are the features that inspired his artistic canon and thereby changed western visual culture. It is difficult to conceive of a more concentrated manifestation of these characteristics than the present work: ten individually stunning canvases that repeatedly represent the icon of the skull; the literal multiplication of death. The ten Skulls are singularly distinctive and collectively resonant: via simultaneous replication and individuation they total a breathtaking artwork. Ten of the finest paintings from one of the artist's most important series, these Skulls were selected by a protagonist of Warhol's inner circle, the visionary dealer-collector Thomas Ammann. It was Ammann who conceived the project of the Andy Warhol catalogue raisonné, which has been continued by his sister Doris and his gallery since his untimely death in 1993, and his choice of this work was struck in the context of privileged access to the infamous Factory. The exceptional quality of the individual paintings and their collective resonance ensures the work's central position to the historic oeuvre of Andy Warhol, while the selective hand of Thomas Ammann memorialises the friendship between these art world greats.
The Multiplied Icon:
Similarity and Difference
This is a masterwork that is at once iconic and aesthetically brilliant. The compilation of these ten canvases provides the perfect assemblage of replication as they invite the viewer's eye to constantly skip from one to another in a continual dance of comparison and evolving perception. By replicating the same motif Warhol simultaneously multiplies and dilutes the power of the imagery: through repetition his works transform from individual images to potent icons. Indeed, the tremendously rare preservation of so many of these paintings in this multiple layout sustains Warhol's deeply-held desire for his works to be shown as series and viewed together.
By repeating the skull subject as a powerful symbol of death the artist both magnifies and desensitizes our fear of mortality. Similarly, this motif at once represents both everybody and nobody: devoid of the vital coordinates of facial individuality - hair, eye and skin colour; length of nose; prominence of brow; undulations of cheeks - the skull possesses an uncompromising universality. In addition, by colouring the skull canvases with vivacious hues of acrylic paint he manifests a stark, satirical contrast with the morbid and sombre subject matter. Brilliantly pure reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples blaze out of the work, beautifully balanced by the purity of the more austere monochrome canvases that punctuate the rhythm of the work. The vivacity of these colours and their exciting arrangements are really exceptional, not only setting primary, secondary and tertiary colours off against each other, but also forging new conceptual ground with the laying of reflective black silkscreen ink over matt acrylic blacks and dark greys. Fluid brushstrokes and the emphatic tracings of finger-marks have manipulated the acrylic paint layers into haptic surfaces full of poetic movement, whose plastic dynamism recounts the bodily movements that created them. In direct contrast to the cool objectivity of his 1960s works, which sought to eradicate the energetic excesses of Abstract Expressionism with the objective reproduction and flat surface of the mechanical silkscreen, Skulls epitomises Warhol's later investigation into painterly texture as the backdrop for the liquid silkscreen ink. The colourist optimism and vitality only serves to underline the transience of life pitted against the omnipotence of death. Warhol's point - ever concise and brilliantly pithy - is that even death, the final adversary of Humankind, becomes mere lurid mundanity when perceived through the contemporary agency of repetition.
Forging the Timeless:
The Genesis of a Masterpiece
When these works were executed in 1976 Warhol's notorious Factory had just moved from 33 Union Square West to a much larger space at 860 Broadway. Also by this time the hugely popular Swiss dealer and collector Thomas Ammann had become good friends with the artist, as well as the Factory personalities Bob Colacello, Fred Hughes, Vincent Fremont and others. The relationship between Ammann and Warhol was close and mutually respectful, the pair having met when Ammann worked for Warhol's long-time representative Bruno Bischofberger in the first half of the 1970s. With exclusive access to Warhol's latest work the dealer played close witness to his output coming to life, as well as becoming part of the intoxicating mix of socialising and art production that surrounded the Factory. Indeed, their respective New York social Venn diagrams thereafter overlapped frequently, forging a close relationship that has been described by Bob Colacello:
"Andy generally preferred the company of dealers to artists, and not only because they could sell his work. Dealers tend to collect as well, and Andy was much more interested in talking about what to buy, where to buy it, and for how much, than about art or theory...he had an immediate, and lasting, rapport with Bruno [Bischofberger]'s young associate, Thomas Ammann, who was flying back and forth from Zürich to New York quite frequently in 1973 and 1974. Andy and Thomas would go shopping together for old watches. We all liked Thomas a lot, and more than any other nonemployee he became part of the Factory family, one of Andy's kids. 'It's great to have a kid who picks up the check for a change,' Andy sometimes said." (Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York 1990, p.171-72)
Thus Ammann's choice of the present work was inextricably bound up in the processes of its genesis. Warhol had bought the original skull that was destined to become an icon in one of Paris' famous flea markets in the mid 1970s. According to Trevor Fairbrother, "on [Warhol's] return to New York he polled his closest associates at the Factory about using it as a subject. His business manager, Fred Hughes, the oracle of uptown taste, recalled the great things Zurbarán and Picasso had done with skulls. His studio assistant, Ronnie Cutrone, the oracle of downtown attitude, agreed that the subject was a classic, and that it would be 'like doing the portrait of everybody in the world'" (Trevor Fairbrother in: Exhibition Catalogue, Düsseldorf, Museum Kunst Palast, Andy Warhol: The Late Work, 2004, p. 70).
Whereas Warhol's earliest silkscreen subject matter was printed image and text from newspapers, magazines and advertising, the skull itself was a unique object that needed to be translated into two dimensions for reproduction via the screen. Thus the precise source for Skulls is actually its photograph, which was shot by Warhol's then art assistant Ronnie Cutrone. Cutrone arranged a trestle table surmounted by a wide board of plywood covered in white paper, which was positioned next to a paper-covered studio wall. Warhol directed Cutrone to take many photographs of the skull and moved the electric light source around it so it would throw out different dramatic shadows. According to Vincent Fremont, who worked for Warhol from 1969 until the artist's death, the artist was most interested in these shadow shapes, and was delighted with the image where the shadow closely resembles the profile silhouette of a baby (Vincent Fremont in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, 2006, p. 91). Thus with Skulls Warhol creates his own icon, independently engineering the totemic imagery that had previously been supplied to him by the machines of media and advertising.
Near-Death and Disaster:
Warhol and Fatality
In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, published the year preceding Skulls in 1975, the artist declared of death: "I don't believe in it, because you're not around to know that it's happened. I can't say anything about it because I'm not prepared for it" (the artist in: Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Orlando 1975, p. 123). Warhol was more alert to whether death had struck or not than most, having been shot and almost killed at the Factory by Valerie Solanas just seven years previously on 3rd June 1968. In a case of life catastrophically imitating art, the shooting of Andy Warhol dramatically reignited his celebrity, as well as inevitably changing his outlook forever. At the very end of his life Warhol reflected on the event with self-deprecation: "I always wished I had died, and I still wish that, because I could have gotten the whole thing over with...I never understood why when you died, you didn't just vanish...I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I'd like it to say 'figment'" (Andy Warhol, America, New York 1985, p. 126-29). Clearly Warhol's attitude towards the inevitable end of life was complex, imbued with fear and denial. Yet fear and denial are human emotions that no longer function beyond the frontier of death. The emptiness of these barren skulls emphasises that their one-time owners have long departed and have truly vanished: they are both the shadow of life and reminders that everything of the earthly domain – consciousness, psychology, emotion, time – ends with death.
From the outset Warhol's art had been driven by his obsession with the fragility of life and inspired his most powerful and celebrated works of the 1960s. The shadow of death appears both as explicit horror in Car Crashes, Suicides, and Race Riots, and as implicit tragedy in Electric Chairs, Marilyns and Jackies. These 'Death and Disaster' works interrogate how death can act as the agent of celebrity; the anomalies of terrifying and catastrophic events fuelling the infatuation of the unaffected majority. Among the living the event of death is inevitable yet statistically exceptional, at any time striking only a tiny minority. And of course, ultimately we face it alone through personal grief and tragic suffering, a truth epitomised by Warhol in his portraits of Jackie Kennedy. Whereas the Death and Disaster works catch the moment of death, often frozen on the faces and postures of Warhol's subjects, the sterile bones and teeth of Skulls rather represent the spectre of death as the permanent and total absence of life. The anonymous skull stands as symbol and tribute to the nameless grave and the countless lives that have already been lived.
The Final Portrait
When Andy Warhol died on Sunday 22nd February 1987 Thomas Ammann was at his chalet in Gstaad with Bob Colacello, who recalls how "we remembered Andy's good side, his gentleness, his humour, his humility. Thomas said that Andy was the only artist he knew who didn't hang his own work – there wasn't a single Warhol hanging at Andy's house" (Bob Colacello, Op. Cit., p. 493). The following day the offices of the art journal Parkett in Zürich received a package from the Factory that they thought contained Warhol's final work: a limited-edition print that had been previously arranged to be inserted into 120 deluxe copies. Inside the package, however, were four photographs by Andy Warhol of skeletons stitched together. On hearing this news Ammann decreed: "Death was very much on his mind. He was so sensitive, Andy, so instinctive. He must have known"(Bob Colacello, Op. Cit., p. 496).
Skulls is Warhol's definitive portrait of death and his admission that mortality is the core vein that runs through his work. Evoking both Warhol's individual autobiography and the unavoidable inevitability that affects us all, it is the mature climax of his Deaths and Disasters, even standing as the memento mori for the Pop generation itself. Indeed, despite the various interpretative possibilities for its subject matter, ultimately this work exemplifies Andy Warhol's Pop vision. Although it evokes the art historical identities of the skull subject as both primeval spectre for unknowable death and as contemplative vanitas, as well as a host of other cultural analogies from the talismans of tribal Aztec art to the existentialism of a horrifying cadaver by Picasso, Skulls is ultimately Pop Art incarnate. The colours and texture of these unbeatable screens are simply sensational. Archetypal of Warhol's unmistakable Pop aesthetic, it casts death as the final celebrity and thus completes his epic survey of contemporary icons from Liz to Marlon and Marilyn to Elvis. Warhol once said that "Death can really make you look like a star", but with Skulls it is death itself that has become the star (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Bilbao, Guggenheim, Andy Warhol, A Factory, 2000, n.p.). Death is the silent participant whose long shadow unites Warhol's most important work, and Skulls delivers the artist's most direct confrontation with this nemesis celebrity as the final portrait.
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, in ten parts
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol, 1990-91, p. 33, no. 47, illustrated in colour
Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, Andy Warhol, 1960 - 1986, 1996
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cast A Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, 2006, p. 87, illustrated in colour
Overall: 192.4 by 96.5cm.; 75 3/4 by 38in. Each: 38.1 by 48.2cm.; 15 by 19in.
Thomas Ammann, Zürich
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zürich
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner