Dating to the mid 1970s, Andy Warhol's Skull paintings are among the artist's finest achievement of that decade. Skull is such a work: a powerful and tragic utterance. The painting is stark. The profuseness of Warhol's sixties paintings-with their Marilyns and car crashes and aisles of Campbell soup cans-has been replaced, extinguished perhaps, by the image of a human skull, staring mutely and hugely from the canvas.
The work is particularly harrowing, even for the Skull series. The work has a confidence-rattling power that is attributable-but not entirely explained-by Warhol's use of color: roman red starkly set against brown and black. Death of course, was a major theme of Warhol's art. But looking at Skull there is a sense of Warhol interrupting, if only for a moment, his deadpan acts and surface vacuity, for a profound and troubling meditation on death. Warhol is normally such a 'cool' surveyor of the Car Crash and Electric Chair paintings, that one sometimes forgets that the artist was at one time also a deeply devout Roman Catholic. In fact, Skull belongs to a tradition of Memento mori in European Religious Art, from the spectral blur of Holbein's "The Ambassadors" to the upturned skulls of Dutch still life, silent in their reprieve. A scarred veteran of the proceeding decade, Warhol's sense of tragedy and the fleet of vanity was hard won, coming, as it did, after the artist's near-death experience in 1968.
In his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) Warhol wrote that "During the 60s, I think people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don't think they've ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That's what more or less has happened to me." (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York, 1975, p. 27). This time, one needn't believe the master's bluff. A sense of the tragic gives the Skull paintings their singular place in Warhol's oeuvre, and Skull so much of its power.