‘If you want to do my portrait, do Barbie, because Barbie, c’est moi’ (BillyBoy*, quoted in L. J. P. Lestrade, ‘A Major Contemporary Artwork’, http://www.mdvanii.ch/en/article/the-portrait-of-billyboy-as-barbie-en, [accessed 30th May 2014]).
Executed in 1986, Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy* was the last American icon to join Andy Warhol’s pantheon of famous names and brands that were the centre of his practice. As a popular children’s toy for the last fifty years, Barbie is an instantly recognisable idol that stands firmly alongside his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Liz Taylor as a quintessential icon of Twentieth Century American Pop Culture. Just like Warhol’s other subjects, she is world famous, an immortal celebrity representing the epitome of beauty, glamour and eternal youth.
Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy* is an extraordinary rare example in Warhol’s oeuvre which is usually characterized by his factory production, creating large series which lead to an ubiquitous canon of imagery of each subject and theme. It is one of only two existing paintings of Barbie; the second known example with a ruby red background, was commissioned later by Mattel in 1986.
The present work is distinguished for its deeply personal provenance. Warhol gifted this painting to the young designer and protégé of Jacqueline Onassis, BillyBoy*, who was a highly original creator and artist whose Surreal Couture clothes and Surreal Bijoux jewellery greatly impressed Warhol. Warhol made this portrait of Barbie, his first, for his close friend BillyBoy* owing to his “Nouveau Théâtre de la Mode” Barbie, a project Warhol was ‘really excited about’. This was the first designer Barbie and it was the first time that a designer’s name appeared on a Barbie doll box. The bright blue background, a colour Warhol referred to as BillyBoy* Blue, was based on one of BillyBoy*’s Surreal Couture Jackets that he often wore.
Barbie’s infinite reproducibility and ubiquity would have appealed to Warhol whose work in silkscreen highlighted the world of mass production that had become a fundamental part of modern existence. The commercial process of silkscreen produced ‘an assembly-line effect’, that successfully reflected the mechanised impersonality of modern culture (A. Warhol, quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York 2009, p. 107). Using this same handling, Warhol has enshrined Barbie as an illustrious figure, a mass-culture archetype of desirability and beauty. Her image is based on Mattel’s ‘80’s Superstar Barbie’, superstar being a term that Warhol himself popularised during that period to describe the actresses, artists and New York personalities with whom he socialised. She is absolutely and unequivocally American, the epitome of the 1980s with her larger-than-life blonde hairdo, her sentimental big blue eyes, and universal smile. The portrait conveys a powerful sense of an enduring and resonant image forever fixed in a moment in time that recognises her as one of the most enduring and ubiquitous twentieth century icons.
Warhol and BillyBoy* were an extraordinary pair, they could often be found at their favourite haunts, the Lenox Lounge or the Beverly Hills bar, along with other elite members of the New York scene. Of their friendship, BillyBoy* has said ‘I really had a very, very private relationship with Warhol, and he treated me really well… He respected me’ (BillyBoy*, quoted in F. Lawrence Guiles, Loner at the Ball – The Life of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 381). Fellow friend to both, Paige Powell noted Warhol ‘adored BillyBoy* because he was so talented and fun to be with’ (P. Powell, ‘Portrait of the Ultimate Neo-Nature Boy’, New York 2005). Frequent shopping companions, Warhol admired BillyBoy* for his ‘good eye’ and his skill in ‘[picking] out the good stuff’ (A. Warhol, quoted in Pat Hackett (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York 1989, p. 719)’. Indeed, it was on one such shopping trip to the 23rd street flea market in Manhattan that the idea for Barbie first came to fruition. When Warhol suggested he paint a portrait of BillyBoy*, the designer replied ‘If you want to do my portrait, do Barbie, because Barbie, c’est moi’ (BillyBoy*, quoted in L. J. P. Lestrade, ‘A Major Contemporary Artwork’, http://www.mdvanii.ch/en/article/the-portrait-of-billyboy-as-barbie-en, [accessed 30th May 2014]). Warhol took his humorous rendition of Gustave Flaubert’s famous ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi’ quite literally and created this painting. A true visionary and inspired designer, BillyBoy* was the first to highlight Barbie’s significance in contemporary culture.
A perfect Warholian subject, Barbie represents the embodiment of celebrity and glamour, consumerism and popular culture. The perfected union of Warhol’s most enduring themes, this work can be regarded as the epilogue and final ultimatum of Warhol’s entire oeuvre.