Staring from the canvas, Andy Warhol confronts the viewer with a disarming candour and intimacy in this striking Self-Portrait. Adapted from one of a group of photographs, Self-Portrait was executed in 1986. Warhol recounted that, in the search for a satisfactory image, he tried on several different wigs and postures. However, it was the so-called 'fright wig', with the chaotic hair jutting in all directions, that he immortalised in his final self-portrait series. The shocks of white hair add a drama to the picture, filling it with tension and immediacy but at the same time, the artist's gaunt features and the white hair give the sense of an old man. Warhol's skin was, in fact, still fairly taut and smooth in his last years, the combined result of care and collagen. However, the strong light source in Self-Portrait accentuates each pit and angle in his face, making him appear older than in fact he did in real life. This accentuation of his facial features gives Self-Portrait the impression of a death mask, and indeed, when a group from the series was exhibited later that year in the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, many people were shocked and moved. Death has always had a place in Warhol's art, especially in his Marilyns and Jackies paintings and the Death and Disaster series, and lurked somewhere behind almost every work. However, after the 1968 attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas, Warhol came to believe that he was living on borrowed time, that to all extents and purposes he should have been dead. Following this, the interest in death that had marked his work until then became much subtler, as the artist focussed increasingly on living. But the 1980s brought death to the fore in Warhol's life, if not in his art. Many of his friends died during these years, many of them before their time. John Lennon was shot, where other friends fell victims to disease, drink or addiction. Warhol became more and more aware that death was circling near him, stalking him, picking off his circle one by one. Self-Portrait is the embodiment of this awareness. It was one of his final series, as he died early in the next year, and it is only apt that this should have been one of his final subject matters.
While his art had dealt less openly with death since his shooting, the 1970s and early 1980s had also consolidated Warhol's fame. He was almost as recognised now as the Campbell's soup cans that had helped gain him such renown. He had featured as a guest on the Love Boat, and even during his audience with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, he was accosted by several nuns asking for autographs. Although he had used pictures of himself on other occasions, his use of himself as a subject matter now, towards the end of his life, became a self-conscious reflection of the fame and recognition that the artist himself had achieved. He presented himself as a staple part of life, in the same manner that he had once depicted stamps and Coke bottles. Warhol was a brand, and not even death would eradicate it.
In his art Warhol's fame, mixed with his interest in glamour and the famous icons of his age, meant that portraits, mostly commissioned, came to dominate his output, people hoping to be immortalised through the Warhol touch. In addition, Warhol was carrying out many works linked with industry and advertising. This contrasts heavily with the stark, deaths-head image in Self-Portrait. Here, Warhol has searched deep within himself and produced something raw and meaningful, which was all the more shocking to those who were familiar with his recent art, and even more so to his friends, who knew that he was not well. This image shows a man staring death in the face, yet palpably terrified of it. There is a frankness to this picture that paradoxically reinforces and disproves Warhol's comment that, 'If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and film and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it' (Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 45). In this work, more than in any of his others, the viewer can perceive the artist's own fears, his state of mind, and therefore sees behind the surface, despite the fact that his gaunt features and almost comical wig translate with perfect immediacy his message of death.
Warhol revisited several of his classic subjects in his later years, often giving them a new verve and life through the use of camouflage or diamond dust. However, usually he would re-use the same source image that he had begun with, whereas the self-portraits changed hand in hand with the artist himself. As a subject matter, the self-portrait is part of an ancient tradition. Warhol's involvement in its development itself reminds us that subjects were often based on conservative traditions, from the portrait to still life to flowers to genre works. However, in his method and in his eye Warhol would completely disrupt the images he took, in turn disrupting art history itself. Warhol's self-portraits are the pictures that evolved and developed most through his career, going through countless variations ranging from the fresh-faced youth in bold colors to more flippant images. Self-Portrait was very much the last stage of this progress, marked by an awareness and a finality, and poignantly records the last time that Warhol froze himself and his development in his art.
Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait, 1972 c 2003 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait with Fright Wig, 1986, 4 polariod photographs c 2003 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York