Warhol's last series of Self-Portraits are among the most moving and iconic works of his entire career. Executed only months before his premature and unexpected death following complications after a routine gall bladder operation, these works have gained a prescience that has done much to reinforce Warhol as a modern day seer.
Warhol once remarked that he'd like his tombstone to say "figment" and this premonitory 1986 series emphasizes his own persona's fabricated nature even further. Although he disliked his own appearance, self-portraiture satisfied Warhol's desire for public exposure and served, he claimed, to "remind myself that I'm still around" (A. Warhol, quoted in The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, 1989, p. 480). His life-long preoccupation with public image and beauty stemmed from his frustration with his own physical appearance, and by the late 1980s his self-image was almost completely artificial. His nose had been altered and his face had been tautened with astringents and repeated collagen injections. Most notable of all was the trademark shock of peroxide hair, provided by his huge collection of "fright wigs." Fiercely aware of his own vanity as he struggled against the natural aging process, Warhol has taken the rare step in these Self-Portraits of openly displaying this element of himself with extreme starkness and simplicity.
In this work, the artist's explosively colored visage appears ghost-like, materializing from the darkness. By objectifying his image in this way, Warhol presents himself as a form of vanitas, a poignant symbol that appears to herald his own inevitable demise. The spectre of death haunts Warhol's entire career as a leitmotif; from Marilyn Monroe in the early 1960s to the Endangered Species series in the early 1980s, his paintings extended his bleak vision of the natural world. Neurotically afraid of germs, disease and hospitals, Warhol was painfully aware of his own perishability. This grew more pronounced as he grew older and many of his closest friends fell victim to the newly discovered AIDS virus.
As a consequence and a progression from his obsession with death, Warhol juxtaposed a familiar symbol of the long-established artistic tradition of memento mori with his own self-image in the Self-Portrait with Skull series of 1978. Countless Old Master portraits had included the skull motif to remind the viewer -- and indeed the sitter -- of the omnipresence of death. By invoking this tradition Warhol emphasized both his status as an artist and, paradoxically, the iconoclasm that so marked his career. In the Self-Portraits of 1986, the expressionless, disembodied head looming out from a black void becomes a skull-like emblem of doom, a memento mori personified. With its full frontal pose and engaging stare, this is Warhol's most direct form of self-portrait. And yet Warhol further undermines the deceptive appearance by referencing art historical precedents. Warhol almost certainly borrowed this compositional device from another master of death and foreboding, Edvard Munch. Included in the many reproductions of canonized masterpieces that Warhol made between 1982 and 1986 was Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait with a Skeleton Arm (1895), which he recreated in 1986. The work similarly features a spectral, bodiless head floating against a black void with a skeleton arm at the bottom edge of the frame, forming a metaphor for the eternal presence of death in the midst of life.
Never embarrassed to follow other people's suggestions for his art, Warhol was instigated to create these works by the London-based dealer Anthony d'Offay, who prompted him to think about doing a new series of Self-Portraits in the winter of 1985-1986. "At Christmas," d'Offay recalled, "we visited a collector friend of Lucio Amelio who had a powerful red portrait of Beuys by Andy Warhol hanging in his house. As I looked at the painting 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 had not only 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. We agreed on the number of paintings and that some would have camouflage. When I returned to New York some weeks later the paintings were complete. The only problem was that Warhol had painted the demonic 'Hammer House of Horror' image rather than the one we had chosen. I remonstrated with him and reminded him of our agreement. Without demur he made all the pictures again but with the image we had first selected. And so between us we brought two great series of self-portraits into the world" (A. d'Offay, quoted in Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, exh. cat., Kunstverein St. Gallen Kunstmuseum, 2004, p.127).
The present Self-Portrait, with its hair standing up and frightening intensity, belongs to the more powerful series that d'Offay was anxious about showing. A few months later, at the exhibition in London, Warhol pointed out his clear preference for these stronger examples from the series: "The show. The show. I mean walking into a room full of the worst pictures of yourself, what can you say, what can you do? But they're not the one's I picked. d'Offay 'art directed' the whole show -- he'd tell me he wanted a certain picture, and then I'd think he'd never remember, so I'd do the one I liked instead..." (Diary Entry for Sunday 13 July 1986, P. Hackett, ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 742). Warhol's own image, identity and cultural persona were inextricably bound to his art and Self-Portrait of 1986 skilfully balances personal revelation and calculated artifice to encapsulate the myth and the man.