Andy Warhol’s painting of the famous Garlstorf windmill in northern Germany is a striking portrait of a building which the artist declared was the most beautiful mill in the world. During a visit he became excited by the dramatic outline of the four blades silhouetted against the sky, and used a photograph as the source image for this series of paintings which he produced in 1986. Set against a vivid yellow backdrop, Warhol laid down successive screens of blue, black and white to constructing the complete image. Each screen highlights particular aspects of the building’s architecture, resulting in a striking and detailed rendition of its colossal form. Warhol modified this further, by reducing the range of colours and placing glowing tracery around the salient details of the image that sharply contrast with the saturated black background; Warhol positions each layer slightly off register, reintroducing to the static image the sense of dynamism and motion that is inherent in the original building.
Here, like his famous portraits of movie stars and socialites from the 1960s, Warhol isolates his subject against a solid, coloured background, removing it from its historical, social or geographical context and thus forcing us to consider it on its purely aesthetic qualities. The artist focuses on evocative use of colour, a quality which can be traced back to some of his earliest career-defining portraits: his iconic 1962 Marilyn Monroe works were some of the first to showcase the vibrant chromatic combinations that would become central to Warhol’s unique artistic language. Windmill was not the first time that Warhol had turned to the past for inspiration, as his unique renditions of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Venus attest. Countless Dutch Old Master paintings had featured windmills, and by invoking this tradition Warhol emphasized both his status as an artist and, paradoxically, the iconoclasm that so marked his practice. While Warhol was clearly referencing the windmill’s iconic stature both in art history and European culture, by creating his version in bright fauve-like colours he further reinforced the transformative power of his iconic Pop iconography and his own place in the art-historical canon.
Part of the same private collection for the past three decades (the current owner acquired the work directly from the artist during a visit to his studio), Windmill is a striking addition to Warhol’s late oeuvre. As the foremost proponent of Pop Art, Warhol had long taken images and objects from popular culture and smuggled them into the realms of high art. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, though, he began to reverse the process in two ways. On the one hand, he began to revisit his own former subjects, examining how old Warhols had themselves entered popular culture. On the other hand—as in Windmill—he turned to ‘high’ subjects and reinvented them in his signature silkscreen style. Leonardo, Botticelli and Munch all had their art suffused with vivid colour, while retaining a sense of dignity and gravitas. This was a rebellion against staid academic approaches to the history of art, and doubled as a tribute to the artists and subjects who, like Warhol, had earned their place as vital figures and motifs in art history.