‘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’
‘Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist’’
–Georg Frei & Neil Printz
‘… a feeling of introspection, of looking backwards, and the one thing I kept thinking about was the relationship of this to, well, the great late self-portraits, people like – one doesn't dare say it – Rembrandt, Van Gogh – a kind of moodiness, a kind of inwardness, a kind of darkness, a kind of loneliness and this is a whole new world for Andy, and it suddenly clicks into place with the whole history of tragic late self-portraiture’
A rare masterpiece completed just months before Andy Warhol’s sudden death in 1987, Six Self-Portraits stands among his last great artistic gestures. Taking on the grand tradition of self-depiction in a manner unprecedented within art history, the artist assembles six distinct variations of his iconic 1986 ‘fright wig’ self-portrait, creating a unique sequence that stands alone within his oeuvre. Few of Warhol’s original silkscreen groupings remain intact, rendering the present work exceptional. His disembodied face emerges from darkness in six intimate 22 x 22-inch canvases, alternately pink, pale blue, lilac, orange, green and cobalt against a void of black. Within a practice punctuated with complex self-portraits, the ‘fright wigs’ are widely considered to represent Warhol’s most deeply personal revelations. They are stark, rarefied exposures of an artist who ultimately became a greater cultural icon than his most famous celebrity muses. Six Self-Portraits was unveiled at Anthony d’Offay’s London gallery between July and August 1986 – the first and only self-portrait exhibition of Warhol’s career. Works from this exhibition now hang in the collections of Tate, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Acquired directly from the exhibition by the previous owner, who held it for nearly three decades, the work’s remarkable six-fold format brings the faces into a chorus of technicolour synergy, dominated by no single hue. Placing himself alongside the great masters of the genre – from Dürer and Rembrandt to Picasso and Bacon – Warhol charges his self-image with a poignant sense of his own mortality. Rendered in immaculate high definition, his sculpted, mask-like face resembles a skull, bathed in dramatic chiaroscuro contrast; his body fades into obscurity beyond. ‘I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I’m still around’, Warhol once claimed (A. Warhol, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 480). Nearly thirty years after his death, these images are vivid reminders of the twentieth century’s greatest artistic enigma.
The exhibition at d’Offay’s gallery – Warhol’s last in London during his lifetime – was a great success, both critically and commercially. Many viewers left the show ‘deeply moved’: Warhol’s friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled that ‘Some spectators interpreted the pictures as a memento 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). Even before Warhol’s near-fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas in 1968, his practice had been underpinned by an obsessive fascination with sudden death. While this had previously found expression in his Death and Disaster series, which included images of car crashes, electric chairs and the atomic bomb, this final series of selfportraits saw him engage directly with his own mortality. ‘The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness’, writes John Caldwell. ‘Perhaps this comes in part from the fact that the artist’s neck is invisible, or it may derive from the oddly lit nimbus of hair that seems posed forever over his head. Certainly, the portrait derives part of its power from the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon’ (J. Caldwell, ‘A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie’, Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January-February 1987, p. 9).
Self-portraits do not reflect an unchanging reality for the artist, but represent specific moments of being. Rembrandt’s are a case in point. As a successful young man, he sketched himself as if cavorting in front of the camera, laughing, posing proudly with his wife, even pulling comical faces; in his later life, as a widower who had been through hard years of bankruptcy, Rembrandt’s self-images took on a more reflective tone and technique, studying the lines and hollows of his aged countenance amid dark, brooding interiors. The shift in Warhol’s own self-portraits from his wryly theatrical performances of the early 1960s to the dramatic, neonstruck darkness of Six Self-Portraits seems to figure a similar journey. Keenly aware that the ‘self’ in the world and in art is an artificial, mediated construct, Warhol pictured himself in ways that were both revelatory and fiendishly evasive. His first self-portraits, from 1963, had been suggested by the legendary dealer Ivan Karp of Leo Castelli Gallery, who enlisted the support of pioneering Detroit collector Florence Barron. In a brilliant reversal of the typical artist-patron relationship, Barron commissioned Warhol to paint his own portrait for her, turning the icon-making apparatus of his Pop art vision on himself. The resulting work was derived from a Fotomat strip originally published as part of a June 1963 Harper’s Bazaar feature. Warhol is presented in raincoat and dark glasses, the stereotypical attire of a man on the run, creating in effect an anti-self-portrait: an image of someone openly in disguise, evading the scrutiny of the camera. His next self-portraits – the ‘mugshots’ of 1964 – display a rigid and defiant face, caught reluctantly as a thief, revealing nothing. The final sixties self-portraits, from 1966-67, show Warhol’s features partly concealed behind his hand, with a hazy use of colour and outline that dissolves him almost into abstraction. Hiding in plain sight, he is a shadowy entity, a mystery or fiction barely present in the picture. This is the self-portrait as disappearing act. ‘That could be a really American invention,’ Warhol once said, ‘the best American invention – to be able to disappear’ (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and back again, Orlando, 1975, p. 113).
The 1986 self-portraits, in contrast, capture a lightbulb moment of sudden revelation and recognition. Warhol’s bleached, collagen-injected features and wild, synthetic wig are splashed in a blaze of colour against deepest black. His flat silkscreen takes on a near-Expressionist force of feeling. Warhol seems to have caught sight of himself in a flash, his entire public image a disguise, both created and consumed by the limelight. He faces up to his life’s work in true Old Masterly fashion, and looks death square in the eye. Opening a new chapter in the history of portraiture, he repeats the image six times. Moving beyond the echoes of mass production explored in his images of everyday consumer goods, here he stages a crescendo of introspective intensity. Repetition lay at the heart of Warhol’s practice: not only in the reproductive nature of his techniques, but also in the way in which he chose to present his works to the public. From the time of his Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1962, he had frequently shown his works in groups, fascinated by the subtle nuances and permutations that emerged in their sequential display. Over the years, most of these serial groupings were dispersed and Warhol’s compound outlook disrupted. Those series still intact – such as the present work – represent complete and holistic expressions of his artistic vision.
Warhol’s elusive identity was inextricably bound to his art. ‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures and there I am’, he said; ‘there’s nothing in between’ (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, ‘Andy: My True Story’, in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3). More than any of their predecessors, the fright wig portraits engage with the humanity beneath this façade. In these works, he addresses one of art history’s greatest themes – that of the aging master taking a last look at himself. His full-frontal gaze wavers between revealing and concealing: he is simultaneously defenceless and untouchable, superficial and sphinx-like. Robert Rosenblum commented at the time that the works 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’ (R. Rosenblum, ‘Warhol as Art History’, On Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 227). Throughout his earlier career, Warhol’s response to the tradition of self-revelation – as nurtured by his forebears – had been to rid his works of all psychological depth, deliberately deflecting the gaze of his viewers. Emerging from the void, Warhol’s fright wig Self-Portraits become the final expression of the famously empty, inscrutable and often frighteningly clairvoyant persona that he presented to the world. But they are also piercingly honest. These powerfully emotional works show Warhol, perhaps for the very first time, not hiding behind a disguise but revealing his own consciously formed self-image to have become its own mask – and, perhaps, a death-mask.
It was Anthony d’Offay himself who, in the winter of 1985-1986, encouraged Warhol to consider making a new series of self-portraits. ‘At Christmas we visited a collector friend of Lucio Amelio who had a powerful red portrait of Beuys by Andy Warhol hanging in his house’, he recalls. ‘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 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 a 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’ (Letter from Anthony d’Offay to Dietmar Elger, 17 February 2004, quoted in D. Elger, ‘The Best American Invention – To be Able to Disappear’, in Andy Warhol: Self- Portraits, Ostfldern-Ruit, 2004, p. 127). The results were at once infernal and near-spiritual in their radiance. In the present work, Warhol’s shock of hair glows like a fractured halo: a distant echo, perhaps, of the Byzantine icons that had adorned his childhood home.
The 1986 self-portraits derived from Polaroid photographs taken by Benjamin Liu according to Warhol’s instructions. Sitting in the stairwell outside his studio, Warhol carefully costumed himself in a black turtle neck and teased peroxide wig. His lifelong preoccupation with public image and beauty stemmed partly from his frustration with his own physical appearance, and by the late 1980s his self-image was virtually a complete fabrication. ‘Warhol’s visage by this time was, of course, almost totally invented’, writes David Bourdon: ‘the hair belonged to one of dozens of wigs, the skin had been dermatologically transformed and constantly tautened through the use of astringents, and the sunken cheeks had been smoothed out with collagen injections’ (D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 402). These final self-portraits focus entirely on his face and the strands of hair exploding like fireworks from the monochrome background. Warhol’s huge collection of peroxide fright wigs – or ‘wig hats’, as the artist preferred to call them – would become his most notable trademark, and came to act as a de facto title for this series. Vincent Fremont notes, however, that ‘I do not remember Andy, Jay Shriver (his 1980s art assistant), or any of us referring to these paintings that way. This “title” was probably thought up after Andy’s death because of people’s reaction to the portraits with Andy’s head floating in space, his wig hair standing straight up or sideways, as he stares powerfully and mysteriously out at the world ... the portraits dominate the room they hang in. Haunting and poignant, these portraits remind me what a true visionary Andy was’ (V. Fremont, Andy Warhol: Self- Portraits 1963-1986, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2005, p.