Painted shortly before Warhol's untimely death in February 1987, Camouflage is for many reasons one of his most important series. The paintings from this series, like the ones from the Oxidation series from 1978, can be seen to refer to Abstract Expressionism. Having deliberately mocked the Abstract Expressionist movement in some of his works of the 1960s, works such as Camouflage transform the raw elements of abstraction into a Pop medium and a fashion statement. He modeled his four-color pattern upon a swatch of camouflage netting purchased at an army and navy store on Fifth Avenue. Warhol cropped and selected areas of the sample, so that whilst many of the works in this series have the same underlying pattern, the repetition of the pattern has certainly been manipulated in the silk-screening process. Together with the unique color and paint application and differing canvas sizes, each work is quite different from the other.
It is well-known that Andy Warhol was familiar with the work of Henri Matisse from an early age when he was at Carnegie Tech, in particular the late cut-outs such as Le Gerbe, the artist’s final commission from 1953. The colorful cut-outs indeed mimic the bright curving lines of the camouflage pattern. Even the layers of silkscreen have the effect of collage when viewed up close. Warhol often visited New York while he still lived in Pittsburgh to view the Matisse exhibitions. “The evidence of the artist’s indebtedness to Matisse is clear in Warhol’s lyrical line drawings; in his love of intense color and his attraction to decorative patterns and pattern-on-pattern designs…Warhol’s admiration for the art of Matisse is equally evident when considering the French artist’s late cut-outs…for which Matisse literally wallpapered his studio in order to create ‘environmental decoration’” (B. Richardson, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Warhol’s Camouflage,” Andy Warhol: Camouflage, New York, 1998, p. 18).
In the present example, the use of nonorganic, bright colors including sunshine yellow and orange sherbet are significant in regards to this particular series rooted in the notion of disguise in popular culture. Brenda Richardson writes, “This was not the first time Warhol had used fluorescent colors. Day-glo pigments appear in works from the early 1960s, in the Electric Chairs, Flowers and Reversals, among other series. Warhol associated Day-Glo with the ‘flower children’ of the sixties…His return in 1986 to Day-Glo colors for some of the Camouflages may have been sparked by the use of fluorescents in the work of his young artist-friends, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. Shriver remember Warhol commenting that he was ‘glad to see kids using these [Day-Glo] colors again’ clearly thinking back to his own work of earlier years as precedent” (B. Richardson “Hiding in Plain Sight: Warhol’s Camouflage,” Warhol Camouflage, New York, 1998, p. 23).
The Camouflage paintings are among Warhol’s most technically demanding works. They were made at Rupert Smith’s silkscreening studio under the constant supervision of Warhol, who would discuss, in-depth, the progress of each canvas. Warhol would personally place the screens upon the canvas, intentionally positioning them off center and overlapping the edges. Four colors of ink were then selected and squeezed or brushed on by hand, with varying densities and pressures giving rise to a rich surface texture. Warhol’s intention was not to replicate the precision of the original army fabric, but rather to build on the potential for variation latent in the silkscreening process. As the artist explained, "With silkscreening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different, each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it" (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, Popism: the Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p.22).
After a decade of work that was dominated by celebrity portraiture, between 1978 and 1987 Warhol took on many new challenges, experimenting with abstraction, new media and subject matter. In particular, his use of camouflage was a brilliant innovation that enriched his own work as well as influencing future artists that mined Pop Art's rich possibilities. The Camouflage series were Warhol's last important works and they solidified and expanded upon his status as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. As Bob Colacello, one of Andy’s inner circle, wrote, "Abstraction was not only a way to be taken more seriously, but also–and much more significantly–a refuge from difficulties of reality. In that sense, the Camouflage paintings, in all their formal abstract splendor, can be seen as true portraits of Andy Warhol’s inner-self" (B. Colacello, "Andy Warhol, Abstraction, and the Camouflage Paintings," Andy Warhol Camouflage, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1998, p. 9).