"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your
gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?" William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Perhaps more than any other subject, death was the topic which fascinated Warhol throughout his adult life and which permeated its way into many of his most famous works. From his portraits of stricken starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to his renditions of suicides and the gruesome aftermath of a car crashes, death was never far from Warhol’s mind. One of the starkest examples of this interest was a series of paintings which the artist began in 1976 featuring a human skull. In Skull, this haunting object is rendered in vibrant red, as it stares out from a monochromatic surface of black and gray. The contrast between the individuality of the skull’s features and the anonymity of its setting makes for an intoxicating combination, and one which demonstrates Warhol’s almost unique ability to integrate art history, popular culture, social commentary and his own personal biography into one compelling painting.
In this particular example from the series, a life-sized rendition of a skull is executed with a shocking splash of red paint. Set against its dark back drop, this jolt of vibrant color makes the image even more striking—its gruesome features rendered in explicit detail. The quality of this particular screen can be seen in the clarity of details such as the contours of the individual teeth and the subtle gradations of the shadows that fall across the temples and the forehead. Against this vibrant backdrop, the dark sockets of the eyes and the ominous, toothy grin become even more melancholy, hollow vessels of the person that once was. That specter of a ghostly human presence can also be seen in the trace lines around the silhouette of the skull as a finger has been dragged across the surface of the painting to accentuate the physical presence of the skull itself.
The source image for this particular painting was a photograph taken by Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s studio assistant at the time. According to Cutrone, Warhol had spotted the skull in an antiques shop in Paris and in the set of photographs that became the basis for the series, Cutrone had placed it on a trestle table in front of a blank studio wall, on top of a piece of plywood covered in white paper. Under Warhol’s direction, he had taken a number of photographs under different light conditions in order to create varying lengths of shadow.
In 1976, Skull was acquired directly from Warhol by Christopher Makos, a photographer who became close friends with the artist. Makos was a regular figure on the downtown arts scene and was beginning to develop a reputation as a serious photographer who would chronicle much of Warhol’s world during the 1970s and 1980s. The pair first met when Makos photographed Warhol for a book called White Trash which captured the emerging downtown punk scene interspersed with images of celebrities like Liza Minnelli, Tennesee Williams, John Lennon and Warhol. Makos said that Warhol noticed him because of his shock of blond hair and the limitless energy he put into everything that he did. Andy was so impressed by Makos’ book that he ordered 1000 copies of his Time Capsules and asked the photographer to sign each one. Later, Makos would be the one who would be responsible for introducing Warhol to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. “I undoubtedly learnt a great deal from him, but he also learnt from me, especially about photography” Makos said. “We were in constant confrontation, continually exchanging impressions and ideas. Andy, who for years regularly had a camera hanging around his neck, defined me as ‘the most modern photographer in America.’ For a long time we were friends in the truest sense of the word” (C. Makos, in “Altered Image,” Altered Images, in C. Makos, ed., Andy Warhol, Milan, 2002, p. 10).
Andy Warhol had always been fascinated by death and began one of his first explorations of this subject matter, his Death and Disaster series, as early as 1962. The roots of this interest can even be seen in his early captivation with celebrities as many of his subjects, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy for example had either died or experienced death at a tragically young age. Even Elizabeth Taylor, probably the most glamourous of his celebrity portraits was almost killed in a riding accident during the filming of National Velvet. These, together with his depictions of car crashes and suicides, demonstrate Warhol’s interest in the fleeting fragility of life. This fascination continued throughout his life, culminating with his own brush with death in 1968 when he was shot by the feminist writer and campaigner, Valarie Solanas.
Following the incident with Solanas, Warhol seemed to withdraw somewhat from using death as a subject matter, preferring instead to concentrate on his series of celebrity portraits. However, the Skull series marks its reemergence, as Warhol again became more pre-occupied with his own mortality. As David Bourdon states “‘he was acutely aware of the happenstance nature of sudden death. In the years that followed his shooting, Warhol occasionally expressed the wish that he had died at that time, partly because he ‘could have gotten the whole thing over with’” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 357). Warhol also fully understood the paradoxical nature of death in the context of celebrity, in that the manner of their passing could cement a person’s celebrity status and set the tone for how they would be remembered in history; and he noted “Death can really make you look like a star” (A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol. A Factory, exh. cat., Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, 2000, n.p.).