During the 1970s, Andy Warhol benefited from an increasing number of portrait commissions. Indeed, these came to dominate much of his production, and Warhol found himself becoming enshrined as a sort of Pop Sargent, his personalised picture the new must-have for the rich and famous. Actors, celebrities, friends and the wealthy had snapshots transformed into Warhols, their images recorded for posterity by the high priest of transience. Warhol, after all, was like a cultural barometer, his art changing with the times, always interested in fashion and glamour, in the interests of the consumer society.
Perhaps it was the lack of distance, of irony, that this new development in his career had taken that increasingly prompted Warhol to seek outlets, new worlds to conquer, new themes to explore. On the one hand, his Communist-themed works provided a contrast, and indeed a shock, to the wealthy clients. On the other hand, their transient wealth and glamour was cast aside in Warhol's images of skulls. Executed in 1976, Six Skulls is the memento mori for the Pop generation, a lurid and colourful adaptation of an Old Master motif. Warhol's skulls, in their uniformity, provide a counterpoint to the infinite variety of the many faces of celebrity. Warhol intended even those faces to retain a certain uniformity and had aspired to having a vast exhibition of his portraits. In a sense, this would have negated the individual characteristics of the portraits, each distinct character blurring and becoming part of a crowd, a nebulous mass of faces. Likewise, Six Skulls implies that, underneath, we are all equal, death the great leveler. As he himself said, ironising the process of decomposition that will affect us all, "Death can really make you look like a star." (A. Warhol, in: G. Celant, Andy Warhol. A Factory, exh. cat., Bilbao 2000, unpaged). Each identical skull image is a negative to the portraits Warhol was producing, a harsh reminder. It is no coincidence that Warhol himself was enjoying increasing fame and wealth - his critiques of their transience are for the attention not only of his sitters and viewers, but for the artist himself.
The homogeneity of the skull as a symbol of any person's death must have appealed to the artist. Indeed, Warhol often professed his adoration for the sameness of the modern world:
"The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald's.
The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald's.
The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald's.
Peking and Moscow don't have anything beautiful yet."
(A. Warhol, in: K. Honnef, Andy Warhol. 1928-1987. Commerce into Art, Cologne 2000, p. 73.)
Warhol's general aesthetic involved an adoration of the availability of the high points of culture and celebrity, the fact that what had been veiled and mysterious for previous generations was now accessible for all. This was the case with celebrity, with art, with consumer goods everything was a little bit closer to the consumer. In a similar vein, he claimed that he loved the United States because everyone drinks Coca Cola, from the president to the stars to the workers. Coca Cola, McDonald's and Death are therefore all facets of the same prosaic diamond. Warhol's art took this world of identical products into the realm of art, with the Campbell's Soup and Coca Cola becoming his own adopted iconography. This was made more explicit by his use of the mechanical screen-printing technique, removing the human from the equation, removing the individual. Instead, he aimed to create an art-form appropriate to this age of factory-built goods and images (hence the name of his studio, The Factory). The repeated use of identical canvases, varying only in colour, emphasises this in Six Skulls. However, Warhol has allowed a painterly element, a certain slap-dash painterliness to characterise the surface of these images. The lurid colours have been applied with sweeping strokes, in part a reference to the Old Masters who used the skull in so many compositions, in part an additional comment on transience - human gestures are visible within the supposedly mechanical process.
Warhol, in his typically disingenuous way, claimed that this was mere laziness. Talking of his portraits, he said that, "I sort of half paint them just to give it a style. It's more fun - and it's faster to do. It's faster to be sloppy than it is to be neat." (A. Warhol, in: D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 330.) While this is doubtless in part a convenient truth, it avoids the artistic results and implications of this painterly quality. Not only is the gesture itself celebrated, the transient movement of the artist in space, but it also lends a huge amount of life to the painting, despite the subject matter. The colours in Six Skulls are like Christmas tree lights, bright and celebratory, chasing away the fears and anxieties that surround many morbid Western ruminations on death. At the same time, the gestures add an expressly individual look to each skull, making each of these panels more individual even than Warhol's portraits.
Warhol's art had long been concerned by death, and it was his successfully explored theme during the breakthrough 1960s, be it through images of car crashes, portraits of dead stars or images of violence. However, it was after the attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas in 1968, where Warhol and a friend were shot by the actress, that Warhol not only became a more reclusive person (despite the crowds that surrounded him, he now guarded his intimacy jealously), but also more preoccupied with death itself. It was no longer the artistic theme that he sought to ironise or denude of its tragedy, but instead a reality. Conversely, now that death was a theme in his life, it ducked out of his art for a period of some years. Six Skulls in some ways marked its reemergence. Warhol was once more contemplating death as subject matter while enjoying his material life.