"I was always saying to him (Warhol), I want to do a big show of yours in London, 'what would you like to show,' and he would say to me 'I'll do whatever you want...' So, I then had to pick something and it took me a long time to come up with this completely obvious idea of a self-portrait. It was years since he had done a great self-portrait, and believe it or not, at the end of his life, nobody had a good word to say for him. Whether they were august museum directors, or collectors, or the general public. He was considered a has-been. It was considered that he had done nothing good or important since Mao ...in 1972. So I felt that it was behoven on me...if I was going to work with him, to make a great proposal to him for a really important work, to propose to him the self-portraits and for that to be a colossal success. And you know they went all over the world to great collections and museums. There's one hanging in the Metropolitan, there's one hanging in the Guggenheim..." (A. d'Offay, Tate Shots, Video, Tate Modern, London 2002).
Comprising solely of a flat, vibrant fiery-red silkscreen image of Warhol emblazoned like a single and dramatic paint-splash over the black void of the canvas, this vast, nearly nine square feet Self-Portrait is an imposing, ominous and ultimately poignant work from Warhol's great last series of self-portraits made in 1986. One of what is believed to be only five versions (green, blue, purple, yellow and here, red) that were made on this monumental scale, this vast but simple, even in some ways minimalist, image of the artist's famous but time-worn face peering tentatively out from under the wild hair of his instantly-recognizable "fright-wig" is one of the great self-portrait images of the Twentieth Century.
It is a comparatively rare self-exposure by the notoriously shy artist that is dazzling in the fearless way which it splashes Warhol's aging but instantly-recognizable features on such a dramatic scale and in such commanding color, once again seamlessly fusing the media of painting and photography into one searing and unforgettable image. Executed in the electric fiery-red color that distinguished so many of Warhol's great "Pop" images of the 1960s, from the Campbell's Soup Cans to his Car Crashes and Electric Chairs, this vast Pop-style icon of an aging Pop-icon, is also, like the late self-portraits of so many great painters throughout history, a simple and powerful personal meditation on death. With its solitary image of Warhol's public visage, seemingly illuminated in the fiery-red color of Pop, and isolated against an impenetrable black background, this work is, in this respect also, a timeless portrait of a visibly aging master confronting the inevitability of his own imminent disappearance from the light of existence.
Warhol's last series of self-portraits are for this reason, among the most iconic, moving and ultimately profound works of his entire career. Among the very last paintings he executed before suffering a premature and unexpected death - following complications that arose after a routine operation on his gall bladder in February 1987 - this series of self-portraits have consequently gained an uncanny sense of prescience and timelessness that has done much to reinforce the legend of Warhol as a modern-day seer. The "somewhat unearthly... and terrifying oracle" as Calvin Tomkins once described him, who "made visible what was happening in some part to us all," seems here, in these works, to be foreseeing intimations of his own death (C. Tomkins, "Raggedy Andy" in Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Eindhoven, 1970, p. 10).
Operating on more than just a personal level however, these depictions of the vivid but also ghost-like apparition of Warhol's gaunt features isolated against a black background and staring wild-eyed directly at the viewer, present, more than any of their many predecessors, a portrait not merely of Warhol the man but also of Warhol the icon and phenomenon. "If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, my movies and me and there I am, there's nothing in between," Warhol had famously said. Nowhere perhaps, is this better demonstrated than in these last self-portraits where the artist consciously and openly presented himself as an artificial construct staring bleakly out of and also into the void, nakedly exposing the strange creation he had become and his profound awareness of his own encroaching mortality.
In one respect, the 1986 self-portraits represent the culmination of a long sequence of paintings about death and mortality that Warhol had been making since the late 1970s. Taking in his paintings of skulls and morbid shadows and also his self-portraits with skulls or as a shadow, it is in these last, simpler, and in some ways less morbid, self-portraits that this pervasive sense of the ever-presence of death has been fused with the manifest artifice of Warhol's own features into a kind of Pop art momento mori.
Warhol was indeed, at this time keenly aware of his own mortality. It had played a major role in his life ever since his brush with death when Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968 when he had in fact died for a moment on the operating table. But since 1980, a seemingly increasing number of friends and colleagues around him had died, some, including his former lover Jon Gould succumbing to the then newly discovered AIDS virus. As a consequence of AIDS, a fatalistic sense of death and retrospection seemed integrally interwoven into much of the nature of New York's "post-modernism" in the early 1980s. No artist was to reflect this mood more than Warhol. In addition, by the time he came to make these self-portraits Warhol's own self-image had itself become a kind of death mask. His face was a mass of dermatological transformations having been tautened with astringents and smoothed with repeated collagen injections. His nose had been altered and his skin was powdered and pasted with numerous creams and cosmetics that he carried with him everywhere. Most notable of all, of course, was the trademark shock of peroxide hair that he used to adorn his strange and delicate visage, provided by his large collection of "fright wigs." Although fiercely aware of his own vanity as he struggled against the natural aging process, Warhol here, in these self-portraits, and especially in such vast canvases as this work, took the bold and rare step of openly displaying this aspect of himself in the starkest, simplest and most direct of ways.
Drawing on his unique ability to fuse painting and photography into an unforgettably iconic image, Warhol has condensed all the recent themes of his art - from the Shadows and Skulls to the dark-ground reversal images and the abstraction and masquerade of his Rorschachs and Camouflage paintings - into a single self-delineating splash of color set on a black background. The paintings were based on photographs of Warhol wearing a black turtleneck sweater which disappeared when placed against the black background allowing Warhol's strange ghost-like visage to float free in the apparition-like manner of the cloth of Saint Veronica, or perhaps more morbidly, the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger. Here, in what is a seemingly a single, fleeting and momentary flash-bulb-like exposure, the slow painstaking study, self-searching and self-analysis innate to the art of self-portraiture along with its inherent search for meaning and identity, is conveyed in an solitary splash of the artist's features. Expressive of the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of both life and celebrity, it is in this way that this haunting self-exposure seems to speak powerfully of the existential nature of man and the dark, ever-present simplicity of death.
Warhol made these self-portraits in the spring of 1986 for an exhibition to be held at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London between July and August that year. Their genesis came from Anthony d'Offay himself who had prompted Warhol to think about doing a new series of self-portraits in the winter of 1985/6. 'At Christmas', d'Offay has recalled, "we visited a collector friend of Lucio Amelio who had a powerful red portrait of Beuys by Andy Warhol hanging in his house. As I looked at the painting I realized two things: first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th Century, and secondly that it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait. A week later, I visited Warhol in New York and suggested to him an exhibition of new self-portraits. A month later he had a series of images to show me in all of which he was wearing the now famous 'fright wig.' One of the images had not only a demonic aspect but reminded me more of a death mask. I felt it was tempting fate to choose this image, so we settled instead on a self-portrait with a hypnotic intensity. We agreed on the number of paintings and that some would have camouflage. When I returned to New York some weeks later the paintings were complete. The only problem was that Warhol had painted the demonic 'Hammer House of Horror' image rather than the one we had chosen. I remonstrated with him and reminded him of our agreement. Without demur he made all the pictures again but with the image we had first selected. And so between us we brought two great series of self-portraits into the world" (A. d'Offay, quoted in Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, exh. cat. Kunstverein St. Gallen Kunstmuseum, 2004, p.127).
Both versions of the 1986 self-portraits derived from Polaroid photographs taken by Benjamin Liu, operating under Warhol's instructions, of Warhol sitting in the confined space of the stairwell outside his studio. The present Self-Portrait showing Warhol with the less upright hair is of the type that d'Offay and Warhol initially agreed to and which formed the basis of the exhibition in London. This exhibition - the last to take place in London during Warhol's lifetime - was a spectacular critical and commercial success, though the predominant reaction from the public was one of shock. Many viewers left the show "deeply moved," Warhol's friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled, 'Some spectators interpreted the pictures as a momento mori, an unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality. Others perceived them as a metaphor for the multiplicity of ways in which the artist was perceived" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989. p.402.) Some spectators were so overcome by the combination of the morbid grandeur in the pictures and the rare presence of the artist himself at the exhibition, that they were moved to tears. "We had enormous press coverage, lots of TV," d'Offay remembered, Andy "came over for five days. It was fantastic. There were security guards and people asking him to sign their underwear. Four of the paintings were sold to museums. He was so amusing with the critics, too. He had this wonderful ability to work out what was lurking in the back of your mind. When he was asked why he was doing the show, he would reply: 'I've kinda run out of money.' When asked why he was doing self-portraits, he would say: 'I've kinda run out of ideas.' He adored London. We got him a nice suite at the Ritz. He came to the exhibition dressed all in black wearing Billy Boy jewellery. We gave a dinner for 120 people - at Brown's or the Ritz, I'm not sure - and I made a speech entitled Artist as Hero" (A. d' Offay, 'Interview by Leo Hickman' The Guardian, London, 4 February 2002.)
The overwhelming effect of the show, however, was that in these paintings Warhol, was addressing one of the great themes of art history - that of the aging master taking perhaps a last look at himself. Robert Rosenblum commented at the time that the show had a "melancholy introspection" like the "great late self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh" while also later pointing out that the works also betrayed a pervasive "mood of both personal and public retrospection" that aptly captured the "period flavor" of the time (R. Rosenblum "Warhol as Art History," On Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 227).
For Warhol himself, the exhibition was also an important landmark even if he had felt awkward being among solely pictures of himself. "I don't like looking at myself. It's hard to look at yourself. This is just weird stuff. If it wasn't me in the pictures the exhibition would be great," he said at the time (A. Warhol, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 481). Victor Bockris even recalled that "when Andy returned from England he seemed to have found some kind of serenity. It was the first time he had made a statement as a painter since the hammer-and-sickle paintings of 1977, and the first time he had done a whole show of himself (one of his favorite subjects since he was a child)" (V. Bockris, op cit, p. 481).
Seemingly presenting yet another, albeit more haunting, mask of himself in these images, Warhol had in fact also laid himself bare, bravely offering up one of his most open, undisguised and unmanipulated self-depictions. Though they were in one respect, once again portraits of a "mirror looking into the mirror," as he once observed, the 1986 self-portraits are really little more than photographic silkscreen representations of the spectral and mask-like figure he had turned himself into in life. Indeed, such was the physical fiction that Warhol's outward appearance had become, these paintings seem to assert, that the always shallow borderlines between his art, life and celebrity, had here finally dissolved into one another.
Although he differs from artists such as Beuys or Rauschenberg for example, who is often thought of in this context, the ideal of a fusion of art and life was also important for Warhol and often played a role in his work. As his Factory friend and colleague Brigid Berlin recalled, Andy was keen for people to "take more control of their lives" to, learn to see their "lives as movies, and to star and direct them. People need" he poignantly said, "to be made more aware of the need to work at learning how to live because life is so quick and sometimes it goes away too quickly"(A. Warhol, quoted in Victor Bockris, op cit, London, 1989, p. 7).