This enigmatic self-portrait of Andy Warhol provides a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most famous artists. Self-Portrait displays Warhol’s growing sense of self-assurance, both in his fixing gaze and in his use of a vibrant color palette, which captures the artist’s growing sense of self-confidence. Yet, despite his increasing public persona, Warhol remained a notoriously shy person and his reticence to truly open himself up to the public gaze is reflected in this work as the right side of his face remains resolutely hidden from view, cast in deep shadow. Executed in 1966, this painting was produced the same year as Warhol seemingly decided to take a hiatus from painting to concentrate on film-making. The cinematic qualities of Self-Portrait can be seen in the artist’s use of strong light and recessed shadows, which echos the evocative spirit and atmosphere of the great film noir classics such as Angels with Dirty Faces and The Third Man.
Against a background of fiery red, Andy Warhol stares out from the surface of the canvas, engaging the viewer directly with the intensity of his gaze. With his head resting on the palm of his right hand, supported by two fingers pointing up towards his pursed lips, Warhol appears deep in thought. The right half of Warhol’s face is shrouded in a solid layer of intense, dark blue silkscreened ink. By contrast, the left side of the face is bathed in the lustrous hues of blistering red, accentuating his features whilst simultaneously same expunging the blemishes that marked Warhol’s face in real life and which made him supremely self-conscious. Appearing confident, yet still holding something back, the result is a powerful image of a man trying to project an image to the world, even if he is ultimately unsure of what that image should be.
Warhol produced his first self-portraits while he was still at art school in Pittsburgh. One of his earliest examples gives a prediction of the many personas that Warhol would adopt during his lifetime, The Broad Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose is a youthful drawing of Warhol picking his own nose. In 1963, in a reversal of the traditional rules of portraiture, the Detroit collector Florence Barron commissioned Warhol to produce his own self-portrait. Based on a series of photos taken in a photo booth, they reveal Warhol dressed in dark glasses and the upturned collars of his overcoat, seemingly playing the role of the celebrities that he depicts—yet still hiding himself from the public he chose to court. As the critic Robert Rosenblum noted, “Equating himself with the wealthy, the chic and the famous, he tells us as much about himself as we would know about Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor from their images in his earlier paintings. But of course, this disguise as a celebrity can also be read as revelation of Warhol’s personal and professional ambitions in 1963 to become a star, his private persona hidden, his public persona only to be caught on the wing by a lucky photographer” (R. Rosenblum, “Andy Warhol’s Disguises” in D. Elger, ed., Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p.22).
At first glance, the artist’s second major group of self-portraits, painted in 1964, show a more confident Warhol with his chin up and shoulders back and dressed in a t-shirt, staring directly out at the camera. This confident pose seems at odds with his earlier shyness but this almost confrontational façade has the appearance of almost being too over-confident, the demeanour of someone who has conjured up every ounce of courage in his body to adopt the pretence of the tough guy.
By 1966, when the present work was painted, Warhol had decided to concentrate on his film making and—in public at least—he claimed to have ‘retired’ from painting, telling one interviewer, “I don’t paint anymore. I gave it up about a year ago and just do movies now. I could do two things at the same time, but movies are more exciting” (A. Warhol, quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, p. 265). However in reality, he continued to do what excited him and produced some of the most celebrated paintings of his career. “A lot of people assume that he stopped painting,” recalled Ronnie Cutrone, “but that was sort of a public posture. Andy never stopped painting…He was doing Self-Portraits and there were Marilyns and Disasters hanging around, and Flowers were being done on the floor...I’d take the train in after high school, and Andy would let you stand next to him and watch him paint for hours” (R. Cuttone, quoted in ibid.).
The 1966 self-portraits became a turning point for Warhol. Finally amongst the images of the rich and famous or the press images of death and disaster, he had become a celebrity in his own right, an element in his own visual repertoire. By this time Warhol was the central figure in both the New York art world and the wider social scene, and had become an icon, a constant and glamorous figure who frequented the city’s art galleries, celebrity parties and nightclubs. Self-Portrait is as much about self-presentation—and self-celebration—as anything else. Here, he gazes out of the picture with an intense driven air. His pose tells of the thinker, the intellectual. This is a man who single-handedly turned preconceptions upside down, a revolutionary, the pioneer of Pop.