Glaring gauntly from the penumbrous background of the picture surface, Andy Warhol holds the viewer's gaze in Self-Portrait, painted in 1986. The bright color with which his own features have been captured creates a flame-like contrast with the surrounding canvas, and the sense of fiery emanation is accentuated by the jets of pale hair that leap from his head. At the same time, this rich burst of color lends a disco-like quality as does the crazy peroxide wig, with the heaped hair recalling photographs of Warhol's protegé Jean-Michel Basquiat. The so-called "Fright Wig" self-portraits that Warhol created in 1986 are often considered his most successful. It has been said that Warhol was his own favorite subject; certainly, throughout his career, he chronicled and charted his own appearance in a range of self-portraits, culminating in these. His fame was so extensive now, his features so instantly recognizable in their own right, that he had easily attained the status within the Pop firmament that merited his own inclusion in his pictures. He was a significant part of modern culture, and it was only fitting that, in 1986, an entire exhibition consisting only of works from this series was held in London by Anthony d'Offay.
These pictures captured a sense of Warhol's fame, but also a sense of his frailty. The stark chiaroscuro recalls the photographs of Weegee, with those shocked and arrested faces captured in a fleeting moment. This is an impression that, in Self-Portrait, belies the intense preparation that went into creating the source image, from purchasing the wig to taking and selecting a photographic template for the silkscreen. Warhol's gaunt appearance, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, adds a strange, searing anxiety to Self-Portrait. This picture appears to be a self-examination as well as a self-presentation. Warhol is looking into the mirror and confronting what he sees there.
Because of this, some people read the fright-wig pictures as a form of memento mori, with the artist facing his fears of his own mortality, deliberately exploiting the contrast between light and dark to present his head in such a way that it recalls the skulls that featured in so many Old Master pictures, introducing the subject of death. This reading has gained weight by the fact that Warhol himself died from complications following a routine gallstone operation the following year. For Warhol, though, these pictures appear to have contained his fear of death but also, crucially, proof of life (and, naturally, fame): he himself said, "I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I'm still around" (A. Warhol, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 480).