Andy Warhol has played an enormous role in the actualizing the tradition of portraiture in contemporary art and his 1960s Pop portraits of Marilyn and Jackie have become prominent icons of Post-War art. In the 1970s and 1980s, Warhol pursued his radically new approach to the portraiture genre through his revolutionary use of the photo-based silkscreen technique and often times bold, non-naturalistic color. Over time, his technology grew more sophisticated and his subjects evolved to include not only celebrities and movie stars but private individuals as well. Warhol's portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe belongs to his series of works of friends and acquaintances who were members of the New York artistic avant-garde scene.
Warhol captures Mapplethorpe in his prime, in a probing, thoughtful manner. He depicts Mapplethorpe using three different photographs, which he overlaps in tones of black over a white background. Warhol captures the photographer in his prime, in a probing, thoughtful manner. The choice of palette not only echoes the photographic source material that Warhol used for his portraits, but pays homage to Mapplethorpe as an artist, thereby linking the two men and their groundbreaking contributions to the medium. Moreover, by superimposing three different screens, Warhol plays with a process that is similar to Man Ray's experiments with mismatching negatives.
The combination of black hues, ranging from purplish to glossy, makes for a seductive image. It is also disconcerting, because Mapplethorpe's features appear in parts blurry (the mouth and the nose), yet simultaneously focused (the eyes and brows). Warhol manipulated multiple screens for his own Self Portrait series from this era; a technique that is more free-form than his earlier self portraits as well as a fascinating exploration of the question and concept of identity. By definition a portrait should enable the viewer to recognize the sitter, however Warhol's use of three screens for Robert Mapplethorpe alters this experience while exemplifying Warhol's exploration of seriality.