"In formal terms alone, Warhol's art of the seventies and eighties followed general patterns of evolution, from the lean austerity of the early sixties-ascetic in color, sharp in contour, frontal and spaceless in structure-to far more intricate period styles. The passages of bravura brushwork that literally surfaced in the seventies over the silk screened images below them, shared with Stella and Johns, among others, that growing sense of painterly virtuosity as a kind of homeless, disembodied decoration of a pre-existent structure, creating new kinds of spatial layering and transparencies."
(R. Rosenblum, "Warhol as Art History," from K. McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective," New York, 1989, p. 31)
Writing in the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art's 1989 Andy Warhol retrospective, art historian Robert Rosenblum notes the importance of Warhol's late work. As Rosenblum goes on to write: in the last years of his life Warhol returned to painting, relieving his work of some of the aridness it had acquired, endowing it with a new density and beauty. The revival was both formal and thematic. Through out the decade, Warhol continued to expand his range of imagery-appropriating graffiti and the decade's slick, burnished ideals into his imaginative storehouse.
Painted two years before the artist's death, Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) is, in many ways, emblematic of Warhol's late work. Present are the sustaining themes of Warhol's career: death and celebrity, as seen through the lens of American mass culture. In this case the lens is blurry-almost haunted. For his painting, Warhol has appropriated an image of James Dean from the poster for the actor's 1955 classic Rebel Without A Cause.
Though not without the artist's supreme whit, Warhol's choice of imagery is also not without its haunting complication. Dean's death, on a stretch of California highway, long ago entered the orbit of American myth. Indeed, the actor is all ghostly halation-more blur than presence. In fact, we see him twice: posing against the wall and again as a trailing, spectral silhouette. It's as though the actor's body had been separated from his soul. In contrast, the color of Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) is delicious: a brilliant lipstick pink of a movie-magazine. But as in the best of Warhol's painting, there is a sense that such sugar is poisoned.
In the same year that Warhol painted Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) , the artist produced a series of silk-screens reproducing a decades old advertisement for Van Heusen Century Shirts, featuring Ronald Reagan, then a spokesman for the brand. As is the case with Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean), the advertisement long ago passed expiration date, despite Reagan's cheerful endorsement: "Won't Wrinkle Ever!" Neither will Dean, one morosely thinks. As in the best of Warhol's paintings, time stands still- Dean is frozen-perhaps even embalmed-in the era of the tail fin. With a touch-up. The hot burning pink and bruised purple of Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) seem quintessentially of the eighties, as does the touch of graffiti scarred across the brick background.
There is a distinct sense of artist's memory at work here, as though the aging artist were again thinking of the motifs and ideas of his earlier painting. Indeed, the 'ghostly' impression of Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) with its wavering surface, looks as though it had pulled up from the artist's memory. In this sense, Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) also belongs to the body of Warhol's celebrity portraits - Elvis and Marlon Brando to be exact-on whose surface Warhol doted. In fact, Dean's face tells as much as theirs-which is to say, it doesn't tell us much at all. Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) is as stony and immobile as the face of a Christian saint on a church apse: staring out at life, and into time.