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There is perhaps no other artist more preoccupied with the depiction, control and manipulation of his own image than Andy Warhol. His first self-portrait series of 1963 powerfully captures the young artist at the very moment of his rise to fame as the illustrious poster boy of the Pop Art movement. Self-Portrait is from this important series, a small and exclusive group that comprises only nine single-panel paintings, and the only one painted red. Disguised in trench coat and sunglasses, the painting depicts the artist mugging for the photo-booth camera, as a celebrity hounded by paparazzi, seeking refuge from the glare of the public spotlight. By shielding his eyes with sunglasses, Warhol deliberately conceals his own image in Self-Portrait, which nonetheless displays a powerful frontality in which he stares directly out at the viewer. His left hand is caught mid-air, as if reaching for his tie, in a self-reflexive gesture that belies the vulnerability of a young artist just navigating the waters of fame and success. In this truly radical self-portrait, the viewer is privileged to witness the early beginnings of Warhol’s thoughtful construction of his own self-image, making it the most important personal statement that the artist made in the early 1960s.
Self-Portrait was painted at the end of 1963, one of the most important years in Warhol’s career. Some of the most coveted works were painted that year, from the Electric Chair and the Disaster series, to the fantastic large-scale Elvis paintings and the shimmering silver Liz series. Warhol naturally situated his own self-image within the same parameters of the uber-famous celebrities he depicted that year, as if letting the public know he was cementing himself within the upper echelons of society at this early date. It was the legendary dealer Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery, who suggested to Warhol that he paint his first self-portrait. “You know, people want to see you. Your looks are responsible for a certain part of your fame—they feed the imagination” (I. Karp, quoted in C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p. 52).
One of the most radical aspects of Warhol’s Self-Portrait is his use of a photo-booth machine to render his own portrait, which he had used to great success in his tour-de-force, multi-panel portrait of Ethel Scull just a few months earlier. Warhol sent her in a taxi to Times Square, where he ordered her into an automatic, four-for-a-quarter photo-booth. He dropped quarters into the machine and she posed for about 100 shots. The leveling power of the photo-booth is what led to the greatness of this series, as it rendered its glamorous subject in the same popular, carnival-type amusement that anyone could purchase for only 25-cents a strip. The sequencing of the photo-booth pictures suggests a cinematic unfolding of events, along with an overt theatricality that must have appealed to the artist. Like a film strip, the photo-booth strip recorded in real time the exaggerated poses and primping of its subjects. In an era before the “selfie,” the photo-booth offered a unique opportunity to construct one’s own image in private, complete with a curtain that cordoned off the special interior world of the photo-booth space. So, the implied secret nature of the booth along with its questionable location in the seedy locale of Times Square must have made it all the more pertinent for Warhol’s endeavor. It was your own private performance, and it only cost a quarter.
Throughout his prolific career Warhol turned his attention to self-portraits again and again. The earliest example appears while the artist was still at art school in Pittsburgh, and one of his initial drawings gives a poignant prediction of the many different faces of Andy Warhol that he was to project during his lifetime of making self-portraits. The Broad Gave Me My Face But I Can Pick My Own Nose is a youthful drawing of Warhol picking his own nose. The result is a strange mixture of an activity that the most people undertake only when no-one else is in the room and a self-conscious performance meant to shock his audience. This duality of Warhol’s persona continues in the first self-portraits of the Pop Era. In 1963 the collector Florence Barron commissioned Warhol to do his own self-portrait, the work which spurned the present lot. The resulting series of “photo-booth paintings” reveal Warhol, dressed in dark glasses and the upturned collars of his overcoat, playing the role of the celebrity that he depicts. As the critic Robert Rosenblum noted, “Equating himself with the wealthy, the chic and the famous, he tells us as much about himself as we would know about Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor from their images in his earlier paintings. But of course, this disguise as a celebrity can also be read as revelation of Warhol’s personal and professional ambitions in 1963 to become star, his private persona hidden, his public persona only to be caught on the wing by a lucky photographer” (R. Rosenblum, “Andy Warhol’s Disguises” in D. Elger (ed.) Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, 2004, Ostfildern-Ruit, p.22).
The illicit quality evoked in Self-Portrait is further heightened by Warhol’s use of a single, bold hue—cadmium red light—as the painting’s dominant color. Warhol is a brilliant colorist, a salient fact that is often overlooked. In Self-Portrait, his use of “cadmium red light” indicates a special connection: it is the same color used in Warhol’s Red Marilyn of 1962 and recalls the look of Warhol’s most famous series, the Campbell’s Soup Cans. Red is perhaps the most arresting hue in Warhol’s entire color repertoire, and its long been associated with passion, from fury and wrath to ecstasy and ardor. The phrase “seeing red” describes a state of absolute anger so powerful that it clouds the vision, and matadors carry red capes in the final stage of bullfighting known as the tercio de muerte. In Warhol’s Self-Portrait, the use of red conveys a mysterious, otherworldly aura that works in tandem with the artist’s disguise to heighten the enigmatic quality of the piece. It seems to flood the painting with a kind of unnatural light, like the kind of lighting found in a photographer’s dark room. Indeed, even the term “red light” recalls the illicit activity of a “red light district” and draws us back to the lascivious goings-on of the photo-booth again. Historically, the color draws us instinctively to the suffused, ambient reds employed by Mark Rothko and the power of color to elicit strong emotional response. For some, it might represent an altogether ecclesiastical hue, calling to mind the blood of Christ, and in this light, might the photo-booth also remind Warhol of a confessional booth?
One of Warhol’s earliest champions was the artist and critic John Coplans, who was one of the founding members of Artforum in 1962. His commentary on Warhol’s color seems especially apt in regards to Self-Portrait. “Warhol’s instinct for color is not so much vulgar as theatrical. He often suffuses the whole surface of a canvas with a single color to gain an effect of what might be termed colored light. It is difficult to use any of the traditional categories in discussing Warhol’s usage, which bends toward ‘non-art’ color…it is sometimes inert, always amorphous, and pervades the surface. …For the most part his color is bodiless and flat and is invariably acted on by black, which gives it a shrill tension. Further, the color is often too high-keyed to be realistic. …This heightens the unreality of the image, though the blacks he so often uses roughen the color and denude it of sweetness” (J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, pp. 51-52).
Considered in this light, Warhol’s Self-Portrait might be seen as a counterpart to the iconic four-part Self-Portrait of the same year that is rendered in a concert of blues, wherein the warmth of red counteracts the coolness of the blue. There is certainly a sense of continuum that exists among Warhol’s paintings. Again, Coplans writes: “The power of these images derives from their seriality: that there are not only many more than a few in any given series, but that it seems to the viewer there are many more than can possibly be counted. …Thus his series gives the appearance of being boundless, never finished and without wholeness…Warhol’s series, then, …speak of a continuum” (J. Coplans, Ibid., p. 49). Indeed, along the lower register of Self-Portrait, a small horizontal strip provides a small glimpse into the next photograph from the 4-part photo-booth strip, so that, even within a single painting, Warhol continues to reference himself.