Andy Warhol's Camouflage canvas was painted in 1986, the year before his death, and is among the last of his great paintings. Despite being born into a generation that strived to break away from the highly gestural tradition of abstract expressionism, Warhol had long been interested in abstract art and this series had been conceived by him as his contribution to that tradition. According to Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol's chief art assistant in the mid 1970s, Warhol had long been concerned with how he might be able to make his own contribution to the canon of art, "Andy always wanted to be an Abstract Expressionist, because he thought he would be taken more seriously" (B. Colacello as quoated in, 'Andy Warhol, Abstraction, and the Camouflage Paintings', Andy Warhol Camouflage, New York, 1998, p. 7).
Work on his camouflage series began when Jay Shriver, one of Warhol's art assistants began pushing paint through camouflaged printed netting. In true Warholian style, he took this idea and combined with his own by reducing it to its basic elements and playing with its associated meanings. Warhol cropped and selected areas from a forty inch sample of fabric netting purchased from an Army surplus store, so that whilst many of the works in this series have the same underlying pattern, the repetition of the pattern has certainly been manipulated in the silk-screening process. Together with the unique color and paint application and differing canvas sizes, each work is quite different from the other. With delicious irony Warhol re-appropriates its original function of being a fabric designed 'not to be seen' and produces a work that stands out as one of his most visually striking.
Andy Warhol's whole life revolved around 'camouflaging' his true-self from the rest of the world. Even his closest friends never really knew who the true Andy was. Throughout his life he hid who he was, where he came from, and even tried to deny his encyclopedic knowledge of art history. Physically, he wore make-up to hide his scares and blemishes and donned his iconic fright-wig to hide his early baldness. Camouflage is an external projection of his internal physical insecurities and as a consequence, is a gloriously hypnotic and deeply personal work.
Jay Shriver recalls that the Camouflage series were also some of Warhol's most technically complex and demanding. The paintings were screened at Rupert Smith's silkscreening studio under the constant supervision of Warhol, who would discuss, in-depth, the progress of each canvas. Warhol would personally position screens on the canvas, intentionally making them off center and overlapping the edges. Four colors of ink were then selected and squeezed or brushed on by hand, with varying densities and pressures resulting in a rich texture on the surface of the canvas. Warhol's intention was not to replicate the precision of the original army fabric, instead he wanted to build on the inherent variations of the silkscreening process and give the work an added abstract dimension. "With silkscreening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different, each time. It was all so simple--quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it" (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, Popism: the Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p.22).
The color palette Warhol chose for this particular canvas closely resembles the tones of the original army camouflage fabric. But Warhol was at pains to point out that he was not trying to replicate the 'woodland colors' of the source material, his "army colors" (beige, grey, olive green and black) are not the precise tones adopted by the U.S. Army as they are brighter and distinctly prettier than anything that would have been selected for operational use. But Warhol was a exceptional colorist and Shriver remembers that Warhol was explicit in what colors were to be used, carefully selecting from samples with minutely different hues to ensure that the finished canvases gave him the visual effects that he desired.
Despite its abstract origins, Camouflage stands as a visual metaphor for the life of its creator. The intellectual rigor of its conception and the technical skill of its execution all mark this work out as an outstanding example of the artist's late canvases. During the last years of his life Warhol became obsessed by his own death and it is perhaps fitting that his last canvases are also amongst his most personal. As Bob Colacello, one of Andy's inner circle, wrote, "Abstraction was not only a way to be taken more seriously, but also-- and much more significantly--a refuge from difficulties of reality. In that sense, the Camouflage paintings, in all their formal abstract splendor, can be seen as true portraits of Andy Warhol's inner-self," (B. Colacello, 'Andy Warhol, Abstraction, and the Camouflage Paintings', Andy Warhol Camouflage, New York, 1998, p. 9).