Andy Warhol’s Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean), is a bold and magnetically otherworldly representation of the legendary actor, symbol of teenaged rebellion, and emblem of the dangerous side of Hollywood life. Dean, who famously died at the age of 24 in a car accident, represented a wild and youthful ethos in his short career.
Warhol’s James Dean can be considered in the same canon of celebrity portraits of characters as Marlon Brando or Elvis. However, where earlier portraits of the latter two were often detailed, more life-like, and created with a typically monochromatic palette, Dean’s likeness here serves as more a signifier of his essence than a true-to-life portrait. Painted 30 years after the actor’s demise, Dean would have been gone longer than he lived, and his memory more of a symbol of an era, a style, and a tragic outcome, than a direct representation of an established character. The echo of his figure in even less detail to the left is like a halo or angelic aura that accompanies his likeness, consistent with his youth, charm and legend. Like a body and its soul, it is made all the more electric and supernatural in its use of bright pinks and orange and softer turquoise, reminiscent of a movie poster or popular magazine.
From the perspective of the mid-1980s, James Dean’s persona would have taken on almost-mythical layers of significance, his memory merging with the times he was part of; that idealized and nostalgic view of the 1950s. The rebel, the playboy, the hopelessly charming Dean, taken too soon, and adored all the more for his untimely demise, was to become a romanticized emblem of 1950s American culture. Unlike the aforementioned Elvis or Brando, Dean never aged beyond his idealized state. There was nothing but the brief window in which he was celebrated, followed by a prolonged reverence. That Warhol portrayed Dean in this style is all the more poignant for the unique perspective it entails: one celebrity at the outset of a short and young career as seen by a celebrated artist towards the end of his. No longer contemporaries, it’s as if the older Warhol is reminiscing to another time, with the bright colors and blurry memories of his own youth tied completely to his view this departed rebel.
This portrait, created only two years before the artist’s own death, also ties in many central themes to Warhol’s career. Notions of celebrity, tragedy and iconic status were all consistent in the artist’s rich output of works over the decades. There is also a strong sense of the artist’s own painterly self-awareness at work here, where he directly recalls his earlier motifs and ideas. Indeed this ghostly presence almost looks like it was summoned directly from Warhol’s memory, a representation of what his recollection and impression of Dean were, rather than a direct likeness. The distant stare in Dean’s eyes somehow connect his gaze out into the distance, with no definite focus but on the infinity of what lies beyond.
In considering Warhol’s later paintings, there is an awareness of the imagery and the artist’s own legacy and ties to art history. Just a few years after this picture was made, and shortly after his own death, Warhol was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In its catalogue, art historian Robert Rosenblum noted: “In formal terms alone, Warhol’s art of the seventies and eighties followed general patterns of evolution, from the lean austerity of the early sixties-ascetic in color, sharp in contour, frontal and spaceless in structure-to far more intricate period styles. The passages of bravura brushwork that literally surfaced in the seventies over the silk screened images below them, shared with Stella and Johns, among others, that growing sense of painterly virtuosity as a kind of homeless, disembodied decoration of a pre-existent structure, creating new kinds of spatial layering and transparencies” (R. Rosenblum, “Warhol as Art History,” from K. McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, New York, 1989, p. 31).
Warhol’s 1985 interpretation of James Dean, as part of this late-career return to painting, is typical of the airy nature of his works from this period. In this phase, Warhol’s paintings took on a style of intense beauty, like a visual sum or culmination of his decades of artistic output. Rebel Without a Cause is true to the essence of Warhol’s evolving style but also makes direct reference to the aesthetics of the 1980s, with its neon culture and graffiti-like gestures. It is at once of the painting’s time, Dean’s time, and the sum of Warhol’s artistic parts.