‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, and there I am,’ the artist said in 1967. More than any of his previous acts of self-representation, Six Self-Portraits (1986) — completed just months before his sudden death — engages with the humanity beneath his carefully crafted façade.
In Six Self-Portraits, Warhol assembles six variations of his iconic 1986 ‘fright wig’ self-portrait, his disembodied face emerging from darkness in a series of intimate 22 x 22-inch canvases. His sculpted, mask-like face, bathed in dramatic contrast, resembles a skull. 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.
Keenly aware of the ‘self’ in the world and in art as an artificial construct, Warhol frequently represented himself in his art in ways both revelatory and evasive. In his first self-portraits, from 1963, Warhol is pictured in raincoat and dark glasses — the stereotypical image of disguise. In his 1966-67 self-portraits, facial features dissolve into patterns of layered colour — this is the self-portrait as disappearing act. By the late 1980s, Warhol’s self-image was virtually a complete fabrication.
Even before Warhol’s near-fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas in 1968, his artistic practice had been underpinned by an obsessive fascination with sudden death. ‘I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I’m still around,’ he once claimed. This had previously found expression in his Death and Disaster series, which included images of car crashes, electric chairs and the atomic bomb.
But at the age of 57, it was as if he had a premonition of his own death. Unlike his earlier iterations, the 1986 self-portraits capture a moment of sudden revelation and recognition. Warhol seems to face up to his life’s work in true Old Master fashion, revealing — perhaps for the very first time — his own consciously formed self-image to have become its own kind of mask.
On 6 March, Warhol’s Six Self-Portraits will be a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London.