‘Death can really make you look like a star’
(A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol. A Factory, exh. cat., Museo Guggenheum Bilbao, Bilbao, 2000, unpaged).
‘At the end of time, when I die, I don’t want to leave any leftovers. And I don’t want to be a leftover’
(A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 112).
A memento mori for the Pop generation, Andy Warhol’s Skull stems from the important series of skull paintings that the artist began in 1976. Executed in black and white, it confronts the viewer as a grainy vanitas or film noir still, with intense dark shadows transforming its orifices into gaping voids. Based on a set of black and white photographs taken by Warhol’s studio assistant Ronnie Cutrone, the skulls are situated at the dawn of the artist’s mature practice. Recapitulating the themes of death and mortality that had driven his early fascination with violence and celebrity, the skulls forged a new trajectory within his oeuvre. Their ubiquity stood in sharp contrast to the flood of high-profile portrait commissions that Warhol received during the 1970s. Though his fame had reached fever pitch, Warhol was unable to shake the memory of his attempted assassination eight years earlier. Death preyed increasingly upon his mind, and the skulls were the first in a long line of macabre subjects that occupied Warhol during his latter years. Articulated with the deliberately banal opacity of his Campbell’s soup cans and Coca Cola bottles, they represent a kind of universal portrait - a reminder of the corporeal transience to which we are all fated. Ultimately, they prefigure the artist’s final series of self-portraits, in which Warhol’s skull like visage becomes an ethereal, disembodied vision of his own ephemeral condition. Standing among the artist’s most enigmatic visual motifs, works from the series are housed in institutions including Tate, London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
According to Cutrone, Warhol had purchased the original skull from an antiques shop in Paris. In the set of photographs that became the source images for the series, Cutrone had placed it on a trestle table in front of a blank studio wall, on top of a piece of plywood covered in white paper. Under Warhol’s instruction, he had taken a number of photographs under different light conditions in order to create varying lengths of shadow. Warhol was fascinated by the different shapes created in the interplay of light and shade, and sought to replicate this effect in his silkscreens. In doing so, the skulls are reduced to an almost abstract geometry that undermines their traditional association with Old Master painting and nature morte composition. As the curator Arthur K. Wheelock has written, ‘Dutch still-life painters placed realistically rendered skulls, with jawbones and teeth missing in the midst of luxurious displays of expensive silver and luscious fruit to warn viewers about the transience of the sensual world. Warhol, however, presents an even starker image of the inevitability and mystery of death … there is no sensual world to enjoy, only a skull, complete with jawbone, who laughingly confronts us’ (A. K. Wheelock Jr., quoted in Andy Warhol. 365 Takes, New York 2004, p. 312). Filtered through the mechanical apparatus of the silkscreen, Warhol’s skull is a distinctly anti-human apparition. However, in a characteristic twist, there is an undeniably painterly quality to the surface of these works: remnants of sweeping brushstrokes betray the trace of artist’s hand, a transient marker of physical presence. Despite their flattened formal properties, there is a unique expressive dimension to each of Warhol’s skulls that individuates them to an even greater extent than many of his portraits.
Warhol’s art had long been concerned with death: indeed, it was through his depictions of car crashes, race riots and dead celebrities during the early 1960s that he had achieved first international recognition. Ironizing the process of decay that befalls us all, Warhol had famously quipped that ‘Death can really make you look like a star’ (A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol. A Factory, exh. cat., Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, 2000, unpaged). However, it was after the attempt on his life by the radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas in 1968 that Warhol was truly forced to confront the fact of human mortality. It was no longer simply a glamourous trope but an inescapable reality. Conversely, now that death was a theme in his life, it disappeared from his art for a period of some years. The skull paintings, in many ways, marked its re-emergence. Though Warhol’s portrait commissions had brought him a great deal of material success, his thoughts were increasingly drawn to the near-fatal events of 1968. As David Bourdon writes, ‘he was acutely aware of the happenstance nature of sudden death. In the years that followed his shooting, Warhol occasionally expressed the wish that he had died at that time, partly because he “could have gotten the whole thing over with”’ (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 357). Cutrone had commented that to paint a skull ‘is to paint the portrait of everybody in the world’ (R. Cutrone, quoted in H. Foster, ‘Death in America’, in Annette Michelson (ed.), October Files: Andy Warhol, Cambridge, MA 2001, p. 79). Though Warhol’s skull paintings embody this dictum, they may also be understood as intimate reflections on the artist’s own deep-seated personal fears: meditations on the fragile divide between life and death, of which he was all too keenly aware.