Andy Warhol became increasingly preoccupied with the elusive notion of the shadow in the mid-1970s. This lead to one of his most important series of abstract paintings, which he created by silkscreening photographs of shadows onto painted canvases. The shadow, which exists as an image yet is ultimately intangible, embodies a paradoxical dynamic, paralleling aspects of Warhol's own artistic enterprise. Warhol reveled in the inscrutability of these penumbras, and carefully constructed images that deliberately obscured the source of the cast shadows he had captured on film. Shadow Painting of 1978 is among Warhol's most ethereal and haunting works of this series. A hazy shadow partially veils its vast field of golden paint, resulting in a powerful composition, marking Warhol's entry into the realm of the abstract sublime.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Warhol began to focus on the expressive power of cast shadows in his Hammer & Sickle and Skull paintings, which may have provided the direct impetus to focus on shadows as a subject in their own right. Yet Warhol had long been fascinated by shadows' evocative power. They play an integral role in formative works such as the Death and Disaster series of the 1960s, where the black ink of the silkscreened photos creates shadowy traces that amplify their thematically dark subject matter. In his self-portraits, Warhol often strategically used exaggerated shadows to play across his face, serving to underwrite his self-fashioning as an enigma.
As Warhol somewhat cryptically explained, "I called them 'Shadows' because they are based on a photo of a shadow of my office. It's a silk screen that I mop over with paint." In fact, the creation of these paintings was more complicated. Warhol based their compositions on numerous experiments with photographing shadows cast by a range of objects including cardboard maquettes that Warhol had purpose built. Warhol's assistant Ronnie Cutrone described how Warhol would go through an extensive editing process, enlarging the images on screens the size of the canvas that they would roll out on the floor, then determining which images would work on this expanded scale. Warhol would then paint the ground of the canvas with a mop to create wide strokes of paint, and silkscreen an image of the photograph on top. Using a mop as an ad hoc paintbrush for the Shadow series was partly a practical means of dealing with the works' large scale, but it also seems a somewhat tongue in cheek gesture, one of Warhol's many send-ups of Abstract Expressionist painting's hallowed conventions, like his Oxidations and Rorschachs from around the same period. Not only does he mop the floor to create his bravura brush marks, he uses an image that has been removed from its original source by several degrees, which cannot purport to reveal a state of psychic interiority. Yet the traces of Warhol's mop strokes are visible in the field of gold paint, and together with the crepuscular mass that dominates the lower left the expansive canvas manages to ironically exert an emotive power.
Shadow Painting is a rare example of a monumental golden hued work in this series, as he generally preferred to use bright colors for the backgrounds. Warhol's choice of gold in the present work is particularly important, as it harks back to his classic Pop icons such as Marilyn Monroe suspended on a field of gold like a Byzantine saint. Indeed, Warhol's use of gold ground in such works relates to his Byzantine Rite Catholic roots, where gold represented the immateriality of the divine realm.
Warhol's first exhibition of his Shadow paintings took place in New York in January 1979, the entire contents of which are now in the Dia Art Foundation's collection displayed at Beacon. It was his most ambitious cycle of paintings up to that time, consisting of 102 Shadow paintings in two formats, each in one of 17 bright colors, which were arranged contiguously like a film strip encircling the gallery's walls. Warhol famously referred to them as "disco décor," since, he explained "the opening party had disco" (quoted in "Painter Hangs His Own Paintings," The New Yorker, February 5, 1979). Yet an entry in Warhol's diary reveals how he strongly felt that they had much deeper meaning than simple decoration -- Warhol complained that a dinner companion "was saying that my work was just 'decorative.' That got me really mad, and I'm so embarrassed, everybody saw the real me" (quoted in The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. P. Hackett, 1989, p.199). For an artist who so carefully cultivated an inscrutable façade, it is particularly telling that he revealed "the real me" in his defense against accusations of vacuousness.