Andy Warhol's Oxidation paintings, perhaps more than any other series in his oeuvre, embody a striking paradox: they are at once aesthetically rich and gleefully transgressive. The present work, created in 1978, is an especially beautiful example from the series. Its surface offers up sensual delight in its coppery iridescence, and its composition is enlivened by elegant splashes that radiate outward with visceral energy. Yet Warhol's method for achieving such rich painterly abstraction was notoriously base, the product of Warhol and company urinating on the copper-coated canvas. The result is at once a pointed parody of Jackson Pollock's drips and splashes and a brazenly original take on abstraction.
Also known as "Piss paintings," Warhol worked on the Oxidation series from 1977 to 1978. He worked by spreading canvases out on the floor and coating them with a copper paint, which he would typically direct his assistants or Factory visitors to urinate on while the paint was still wet. Over time, the uric acid would oxidize the metal in the copper paint and create an attractively shimmering patina. Although the act of urination might seem to be the ultimate gesture of desecration, Warhol ironically insisted on the importance of artistic skill in their creation, explaining that "they had technique, too. If I asked someone to do an Oxidation painting, and they just wouldn't think about it, it would just be a mess. Then I did it myself -- and it's just too much work -- and you try to figure out a good design" (A. Warhol, quoted in I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, edited by K. Goldsmith, 2004, p. 327). Warhol particularly loved having his assistant Ronny Cutrone contribute these works, "because he takes a lot of vitamin B so the canvas turns a really pretty color when it's his piss" (A. Warhol, quoted in The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. P. Hackett, 1989, p. 55). He was so inspired by the painterly effects he achieved through the use of urine as a substitute for paint that he even experimented with brushing urine onto the canvas, although he gave up after finding it too difficult.
Warhol created his first "Piss painting" in 1962, which is no longer extant and only known through photographs. It is significant that he was experimenting with this radically scatological approach to art-making alongside his Pop breakthroughs such as his silkscreens of Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn that he created during that year. While Warhol's Pop silkscreens used strategies of repetition and banality to displace notions of personal expression from the art object, his "Piss paintings" insist on a frank carnality in their method of execution. Turning the body into a brush, Warhol alchemically transforms waste into artistic creation. He was likely aware of artistic precedents such as Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista of 1961, although Warhol's approach emphasizes aesthetic delectation as much as conceptual gesture.
Warhol chose to focus on the Oxidation paintings at a time in 1970s when he was derided as simply a slavish society portraitist. He strategically used the Oxidation paintings to reassert his vanguard status, along with other abstract series such as the Rorschachs and Shadows. In these works, as in other formative paintings from the 1960s, Warhol challenged Abstract Expressionist conventions and particularly Jackson Pollock as a paradigm of artistic originality and prowess. Pollock was hailed by Life magazine as the greatest living artist in America in the summer of 1949, just when Warhol moved to New York after graduating from art school, and remained an important figure for Warhol. Famed for his rebellious persona as much as his groundbreaking painting, Pollock was reputed to have urinated on canvases before giving them to clients he didn't like, and urinated in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace to protest her cutting down the size of a mural he made. Warhol apparently found Pollock's macho bravado ridiculous. As Warhol stated, "I asked Larry [Rivers] about Jackson Pollock. 'Pollock? Socially he was a real jerk,' Larry said. 'Very unpleasant to be around.' I tried to imagine myself in a bar striding over to say, Roy Lichtenstein and asking him to 'step outside' because I'd heard he'd insulted my soup cans. I mean, how corny" (A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol: The Late Work, 2004, p. 91). Warhol played on the phallic connotations of Pollock's virile flinging of paint by substituting sexual organs for paintbrush. Indeed, a sexual dimension is also present in the Oxidations in the way they allude to practices current in the underground fetish scene in New York, which Warhol frequented. As one Factory regular characterized the production of the Oxidations "It was like a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph come alive" (B. Colacello, quoted in Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, 1990, p. 341).
Characteristically, the spectacle that Warhol presided over while creating his Oxidations was an important part of the work. As Cutrone described, working on the Oxidation paintings in the Factory "became almost a sort of performance. Like an Yves Klein kind of thing; with women rolling on the canvas. We would instead bring in boys and girls and have them standing on the big canvases. So the studio would become like a toilet, a giant urinal" (R. Cutrone, quoted in Andy Warhol: The Late Work, p. 92). Warhol's Oxidations certainly conjure associations with the most famous urinal in the history of art, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, an emblem of artistic rebellion since 1917, when it was rejected from the Armory show. Like Duchamp, who questioned the boundaries of art by presenting an upturned urinal on a pedestal as sculpture, Warhol tests the limits of what can be considered painting in the Oxidations.