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Striking in its monumental scale and optical splendor, Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes seizes the viewer’s attention with its gem-like and celestial appearance as light catches and enlivens the multifaceted shimmering surface. Painted in 1980-81, it is one of the most charismatic examples of this late series in Warhol’s oeuvre in which he commemorates the leitmotif of footwear that had such personal and professional significance for him throughout his career. The surface of the canvas shivers as a constellation of ethereal pale blue shoes floats against a sparkling jet-black background. These large-scale shoes dwarf their real world models, removing them from the prosaic and compounding their sense of otherworldliness. Although he plays with an abstract aesthetic in the work, Warhol nonetheless draws attention back to his Pop vernacular. Elements such as the TONY label visible inside the shoe in the bottom center of the composition force the viewer to return to the real-world referents of his appropriated consumer products with which he revolutionized the world of art two decades earlier.
Shoes were an important subject for Warhol throughout his career. Fresh-faced and hungry for success, Warhol arrived in New York City in 1949 to commence a career as a commercial illustrator. He quickly achieved renown with his “blotted-ink” style advertisements of shoes for luxury retailers that appeared in major publications such as The New York Times. Thirty years later, in 1980, Warhol explained the personal significance of this series: “I’m doing shoes because I’m going back to my roots. In fact, I think I should do nothing but shoes from now on” (A. Warhol quoted in P. Hackett, (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 306).
With its sensuous surface, Diamond Dust Shoes far surpasses the tantalizing appeal of his source material. His application of the sparkling surface, a technique he began experimenting with in 1979, proved to be perfectly Warholian in that it allowed his preferred themes of fame and glamor to be manifested materially on the canvas by utilizing the social connotations of diamonds as the most highly coveted objects. Warhol had employed gold paint in a similar manner in seminal works much earlier in his career such as the Museum of Modern Art’s Gold Marilyn Monroe from 1962. By the early 1980s when this work was produced, Warhol had long since cultivated a social circle of beautiful, famous and fashionable people. It was the height of popularity for the legendary nightclub Studio 54, which Warhol and his friends frequented. The dazzling effect of the shimmering canvas evokes the twinkling light emanating from a disco ball and bouncing off of the shoes of New York City’s elite. Thus the work contains strong autobiographical elements for Warhol both in its allusions to his prolonged history with shoes as a subject of his art and his abiding preoccupation with money, fashion and fame. Always with an eye towards mass marketing and appealing to innate human desires, Warhol shrewdly recognized the sensuality of female shoes. The implied female body, so commonly the direct subject of art throughout the ages, is alluded to in Diamond Dust Shoes though not made explicit.
Erotically charged, the viewer’s imagination is set ablaze with visions of the beautiful women who wear such fabulous and immaculate shoes. Vertically arranged in deliberate disarray, the shoes seem to float in an abyss, thereby not offering the viewer an easy visual entry point into the composition. We remain voyeurs observing such opulence from a distance. Despite Warhol’s own insistence that the “artificial fascinates me, the bright and shiny,” one of the most salient aspects of this work is its darker undercurrents (A. Warhol quoted in K. Goldsmith (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 93). The shoes are not soft and feminine, but instead the beautiful caliginous colors suggest the darker side of scintillating consumerism and the objectification of women. Warhol emphasizes the superficial nature of the work with a sparkling surface that highlights the lack of depth of the two-dimensional picture plane, and the non-materiality of the lightly deposited blue paint of the shoes, which both serve as conceits through which he can insinuate, albeit indifferently, the vapid nature of American consumer culture as a whole. The semi-translucency of the light blue paint also gives the composition the appearance of a beautiful X-ray image suggestive of Warhol’s profound examination of the core beneath the glittering façade of American ideology that is often obfuscated by his own glib remarks. Both timeless and highly representative of its maker and the particular moment in which it was created, Diamond Dust Shoes is a complex meditation upon, and brilliant distillation of, Warhol’s contemporary American culture. It remains a testament to a specific era by encapsulating the collective values and priorities of that time.