Whether it was his extremely flattering commissioned portraits of the international jet set or his own cool self-portraits, Andy Warhol was a master at cosmetic enhancement. Donning his blond wig and customary dark sunglasses, he made a virtue of his freaky looks and turned himself into one of the most instantly recognizable faces in the world. Early paintings such Before and After, 1961, were copied from the small-ads in the back of trashy magazines, which promised the reader more beautiful and stronger bodies thanks to plastic surgery, baldness remedies or quick exercise regimes.
In the mid-1980s Warhol looked again to these black and white advertisements as rich source material for a new series of paintings. After twenty years of concentrating on silkscreen printing as his chosen medium, he returned to making "hand-painted" pictures that allowed for greater spontaneity and a more painterly style than the mechanical screening process. Be Somebody with a Body is the best known work from this new series. Warhol borrowed the image of a bodybuilder glowing with a halo of health from an unidentified ad page and projected it against his canvas. As was his method in 1961, he worked freehand and reproduced the projected graphics without pencil underdrawing. His use of the brush is intentionally rough, even letting the paint drip. This is reminiscent of his early comic-strip pictures like Superman and Dick Tracy, where he seemed to be parodying the runny paint of Abstract Expressionist masters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Warhol's return to the brush had been inspired by his recent collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, the new generation of 80s artists who had brought painting back to the forefront of art world debate.
Warhol's art has always been simultaneously a celebration of and an ironic comment on commercialism, mass media stargazing and a contemporary American society obsessed with beauty, breast-size, weight problems and diets. Be Somebody with a Body reflects the pressure that is exerted by modern society to be beautiful in order to conform and fit in. As a shy gay man, painfully self-conscious of his own strange looks, Warhol felt this pressure more than most. Blazing in a halo of power and erotic energy, the bodybuilder represents everything that modern man should strive to be. In the greedy and decadent America of the 1980s, he is a symbol of a material world where a beautiful body is the secret to becoming a somebody.
The creation of Be Somebody with a Body coincided with Warhol's final great series devoted to Leonardo da Vinci's mural The Last Supper. In some pictures Warhol isolated the figure of Jesus from his disciples and superimposed him next to the image of the bodybuilder. In this way the artist pitted the divinity of Christ against the physicality and materialism of man, the sacred against the profane.