Andy Warhol's profound awareness of the way mass media has defined the norms of experience in the contemporary world shaped all aspects of his art, but his exploration of the fabrication of image is perhaps most visible in his portraits. Depicting public figures in the dispassionate and serialized manner of commercial products, Warhol forged a new type of portraiture that fed on the popular appetite for celebrity. For his portrait of Judy Garland, produced at the end of the 1970s, Warhol added the doe-eyed legend of stage and screen to a pantheon of celebrities whose larger-than-life personal myths had achieved them the level of stardom Warhol had himself always idolised.
Warhol's passion for success and for famous people that had begun in childhood continued to reveal itself whilst he was an ambitious young commercial illustrator. His former roommate, Elaine Baumann, remembered him as a socially awkward, but gifted young artist who was so totally star-struck, that he 'would write fan letters to Truman Capote and Judy Garland,' and 'be breathless when he'd seen Somebody or Someone' (V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, p.86). Warhol intuitively understood that appearance, glamour and fame were paramount in an era dominated by television, film and glossy gossip magazines and his artistic approach sprang from the popular culture that surrounded him. Portraits like Judy Garland recognise the massive influence film and photography has had on culture and image making, representing its ability to both capture reality and project a magical and covetable world of make believe. Having depicted public figures in the dispassionate and serialized manner of commercial products, Warhol forged a new type portraiture that fed on the popular appetite for celebrity. In this way, Warhol's work echoes the observations of his contemporary, the media theoretician, Marshall McLuhan: 'The photograph extends and multiplies the human image to the proportions of mass-produced merchandise. The movie stars and matinee idols are put in the public domain by photography. They become dreams money can buy' (Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, MA. 1964, p. 92). Employing these media tactics, Warhol no longer relied on the tropes of conventional portraiture, such as individuality and psychological insight, but acknowledged the idea that the media produces celebrity as a consumer good for anyone to attain.
Warhol appropriated the celebrity of his subjects and replicated the production techniques of mass media, transforming his own status into a highly valuable commodity. By the seventies, the iconising quality of his work had been recognised and translated into a huge demand for commissions from celebrities and high society who wished to glorify their own image. Although his portraits of the living people dominated his output at this time, Warhol's Judy Garland paintings revisit one of his most famous subjects - the Hollywood heroine tainted by tragedy. Unlike his previous leading ladies, Marilyn, Liz and Jackie, Judy's portrait was not executed as a direct response to a personal disaster, but ten years after the star's death from a drug overdose at the age of 47, thereby emphasizing Warhol's insistence on the link between fame and nostalgia. Executed on two of the standard 40 x 40 inch canvases the artist regularly used for his portraits, Warhol presents a coiffed and bejewelled image of Judy Garland against pure white and regal blue backgrounds, creating an elegant mirror on the past that lends everlasting life to her beauty.
Judy had always been a favourite star amongst Warhol's galaxy of venerated celebrities. Despite, or perhaps because of her widely published faults and dramas, she was a figure of adoration to an army of camp followers, including the Factory regular Candy Darling, who impersonated her in his stage performances. In 1969, Warhol and Candy had been amongst the 21,000 fans to jam the streets of Manhattan's Upper East Side in order to file past the bier where Judy's body lay in state. Warhol was attracted to Garland's unusual combination of vulnerability and strength, qualities that had also been evident in the best known of his self created superstars, Edie Sedgwick: 'To me,' Warhol said, 'Edie and Judy had something in common - a way of getting everyone totally involved in their problems. When you were around them, you forgot you had problems of your own, you got so involved in theirs. They had dramas going right around the clock, and everybody loved to help them through it all. Their problems made them even more attractive (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando 1980, pp. 132-3). Yet, although Judy Garland certainly held personal significance for Warhol as the mother of his good friend Liza Minnelli and as a classic Hollywood starlet legendarily revered by the gay community, her image belonged as much to the popular culture image bank as his Marilyn and Liz - a commodity to be considered on par with Campbell's Soup.
This conflict between private and public life, the trading of personality for fame and fortune, had been familiar to Garland from birth. After her attendance at the Factory's 'Fifty Most Beautiful People' party in 1965, Warhol commented that 'Judy Garland grew up on the M.G.M. lot! To meet a person like Judy whose real was so unreal was a thrilling thing. She could turn everything on and off in a second; she was the greatest actress you could imagine every second of her life' (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando 1980, p. 127). By resurrecting Judy Garland's image from a studio photograph at her most beautiful, Warhol presents a metaphor for the enduring proclivity to canonize entertainers as gods and goddesses and pays a reverential tribute to a star whose glamour, fame and turbulent lifestyle enthralled him to the end.