This striking red portrait of John Lennon was produced by Andy Warhol in late 1985, as part of a project to mark the release of Lennon's posthumous album Menlove Ave., a selection of previously unreleased material from the ex-Beatles' Rock 'n' Roll sessions recorded with legendary music producer Phil Spector. Unusually, Warhol decided not to use one of his own photographs of Lennon but instead chose to use an image of Lennon taken in 1971 by Iain Macmillan, the man who is perhaps most well-known for his iconic photograph of the Beatles on a pedestrian crossing near the Abbey Road studios in London, was which featured on the cover of their iconic 1969 album of the same name.
From the surface of this vibrant red canvas, an evocative image of Lennon stares out directly at the viewer, engaging them in a hypnotically beguiling gaze. Lennon's flawless features are framed by his slightly unkempt, tussled hair and circular, government-issued National Health Service glasses. This modest rendition is far removed from the celebrity status of one of the world's most famous rock stars, and this charismatic rendition lets Lennon's considerable charm shine through. Warhol's painting lets some of Lennon's charisma take center stage in the neon-colored highlights that reflect off the surface of his hair. Warhol began to introduce these "neon-highlights" into his work beginning in the 1980s, a step on from the painterly highlights that he added directly onto the surface with his fingers that began to make an appearance in this paintings from the mid-1970s onwards. In John Lennon (Red), they serve to help frame the subjects face as well as adding depth to what, for Warhol at least, had often been a flat form of art.
It was in June 1971 that John and Yoko first explored New York together, meeting many friends and artists living there who would show them around their favorite parts of the city. Bob Dylan even persuaded John and Yoko to buy bicycles, telling them that it was the best way to get around the Village, and Warhol spent much time escorting the famous couple around his favorite antique shops and art galleries. The warmth of their welcome to the city had a lasting effect on Lennon, persuading him to settle there in October 1971 while telling the British press, "In the States we're treated like artists, which we are! But here in Britain, it's like 1940...it's really the sticks, you know. While in New York there's these fantastic twenty or thirty artists who all understand what I'm doing and have the same kind of mind as me. It's just like heaven after being here" (J. Lennon, quoted in R. Coleman, Lennon: the Definitive Biography, London, 2000, p. 583).
Warhol, Lennon, and Ono became friends and were often spotted at various social events around the city. Warhol was particularly affected by the events of December 8, 1980 when Lennon was killed by Mark Chapman outside his apartment in the Dakota building. Warhol was attending a benefit for the Costume Institute when news of the shooting broke. He recorded the events of the night in his diaries, noting "Someone came in and said John Lennon was shot and noone could believe it, so someone called the Daily News, and they said it was true. It was scary; it was all anyone could talk about." Two days later he wrote, "The one who killed him was a frustrated artist. They brought up the Dalí poster he had on his wall. They always interview the janitors and the old schoolteachers and things. The kid said the devil made him do it. And John was so rich, they say he left a $235 million estate. And the "vigil" is still going on at the Dakota. It looked strange, I don't know what those people think they're doing" (A. Warhol, diary entry, December 10, 1980, Pat Hackett, (ed.) The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York 1989, pp. 347-348).
It was partly in the shadow of Lennon's death that, in late 1985, Warhol was asked to produce a portrait of John Lennon for the cover of the then forthcoming Lennon album, Menlove Ave. This was a posthumous album released under the supervision of Lennon's widow Yoko, the title of the album referring to the name of the street in Liverpool where Lennon had grown up. Warhol produced two paintings of Lennon that were used for the front and back covers of this album. These two paintings are now owned by Yoko, but at the same time Warhol also produced this 40 x 40 inch portrait of Lennon in the style of some of his recent iconic portraits, such as those of Lenin.
In painting this portrait of Lennon, Warhol evidently knew he was making more than a mere society portrait of a celebrity but portraying an iconic figure whose legendary status had recently been magnified by his untimely death. It was perhaps for this reason that Warhol did not use a more intimate or personal photograph of Lennon, but Macmillan's iconic and somehow immediately familiar image--an image that seemed to convey both the essence and legend of Lennon.