‘Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist’ (G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London 2004, p. 227).
‘Haunting and poignant, these portraits remind me what a true visionary Andy was’ (V. Fremont, Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits 1963-1986, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2005, p. 22).
‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures and there I am; there’s nothing in between’ (A. Warhol, quoted by G. Berg, ‘Andy: My True Story’, in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
‘The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness... Certainly, the portrait derives part of its power from the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon’ (J. Caldwell, ‘A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie’, Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January-February 1987, p. 9).
Completed shortly before his sudden death in 1987, Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait, 1986 is rare in his series of late, great self-portraits, depicting the artist much larger than life-size, ‘up-close and personal’. With its searing and fiery colour combination of scarlet red and intense cadmium yellow, the closely cropped classic 40-inch square format, Warhol encourages us to stare deep into his darkened eyes and analyse every square inch of his visage. The artist’s sculpted appearance, heightened by the contrast between light and dark, makes the picture appear to act as both a self-examination as well as a self-presentation. This painting stands out in this renowned ‘fright wig’ series, of which other iterations depict the artist’s entire head and ‘fright wig’ against a deep black background. The Self-Portraits that span his career were the lifeblood of his work, and of all the self-portraits he made, it is the 1966 and 1986 series that are most revered. As Georg Frei and Neil Printz have said, ‘Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist’ (G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London 2004, p. 227). Above all, Warhol’s self-portraits offer a series of theatrical masks that, even when seeming to confront the viewer with frightening intensity, evade our gaze. Nearly thirty years after the artist’s death, the haunting image that Warhol constructed of himself has become the lasting one in which we remember him by, adding poignancy to his own statement: ‘I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I’m still around’ (A. Warhol quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 480).
Throughout his career, Warhol chronicled and charted his own appearance in a range of self-portraits, culminating in this final defining series of works. Just as this series, which was prompted by gallerist Anthony d’Offay, it was the legendary dealer Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery who suggested to Warhol that he paint his first self-portrait and enlisted the support of pioneering Detroit collector Florence Barron. Initially visiting Warhol’s studio to discuss the commission of her own portrait, in a brilliant reversal of the typical artist-patron relationship, Barron proposed instead that she would commission Warhol to paint his portrait for her – and to turn the icon-making apparatus of his Pop art vision on himself. The commissioned work, Warhol’s first silk-screened image of himself, was derived from a Photomat strip originally published as part of a June 1963 Harpers’ Bazaar feature titled ‘New Faces, New Forces, New Names in the Arts’. Warhol’s second self-portrait, dating from 1964 follows closely on from the first but takes an entirely different approach: here he has selected and repeated a single photo-booth image, a straight-on mug shot reminiscent of the Most Wanted Men series he had presented at the New York World’s Fair earlier that year. Warhol’s ascendance to stardom is evident in the dramatic pose for his self-portraits of 1966: bathed in the chiaroscuro of the photographer’s theatrical light, Warhol embodies the kind of constructed self-projection that was crucial to his public façade.
Twenty years later, Warhol would return to the self as subject for the last time in his career. More than any of its predecessors, the ‘fright wig’ portraits present not merely ‘Warhol the man’ but also ‘Warhol the icon’. In these last self-portraits, Warhol consciously and openly presented himself as an artificial construct, his unblinking gaze oscillates between telling us all and telling us nothing about the artist, who can seem, even in the same work, both vulnerable and invulnerable, both superficial and profound. Warhol was addressing one of the great themes of art history – that of the aging master taking perhaps a last look at himself. Robert Rosenblum commented at the time that the works had a ‘melancholy introspection’ like the ‘great late self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh’ while also later pointing out that the works also betrayed a pervasive ‘mood of both personal and public retrospection’ that aptly captured the ‘period favor’ of the time (R. Rosenblum ‘Warhol as Art History’, On Modern Art, New York 1999, p. 227). The self-portrait has been a major subject of art history since the Renaissance, often used by artists in order to investigate and express their inner psyche and emotions. Warhol’s repeated engagement with his own visage and persona places his art among the great artists whose self-portraits populate the art historical canon such as Durer, Rembrandt, Courbet, van Gogh, and Picasso. Arguably no other artist in the twentieth century was as deeply engaged with the representation of his or her own likeness as Warhol, a fact all the more marked since the twentieth century evidenced such a break with the long historical tradition of self-portraiture. Warhol’s response to this tradition was to create a seemingly anonymous and emotionally vacant self-image. Indeed, more than any other artist of his generation, Warhol’s image, identity and cultural persona were inextricably bound to his art, and his self-portraits served as a means of extending both. Emerging from the void, Warhol’s fright wig Self-Portraits are arguably, the work establishes itself as the final icon of the famously empty, enigmatic and often frighteningly clairvoyant persona that Warhol built for himself and presented to the world. ‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, the just look at the surface of my pictures and there I am; there’s nothing in between’ (A. Warhol, quoted by G. Berg, ‘Andy: My True Story’, in Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
The series of 1986 self-portraits derived from Polaroid photographs taken by Benjamin Liu, operating under Warhol’s instructions. Sitting in the stairwell outside his studio, Warhol presented a carefully constructed persona of himself in a black turtle neck and teased peroxide wig. Warhol’s life-long preoccupation with public image and beauty stemmed from his frustration with his own physical appearance, and by the late 1980s his self-image was almost completely artificial. His nose had been altered and his face had been tautened with astringents and collagen injections. His shock of peroxide hair, the hue of which Warhol could subtly alter thanks to his huge collection of ‘fright wigs’ or ‘wig hats’, as the artist preferred to call them, became his most notable trademark.
While the wig would go on to define how the series would be referenced, Vincent Fremont notes ‘I do not remember Andy, Jay Shriver (his 1980s art assistant), or any of us referring to these paintings that way. This “title” was probably thought up after Andy’s death because of people’s reaction to the portraits with Andy’s head floating in space, his wig hair standing straight up or sideways, as he stares powerfully and mysteriously out at the world... the portraits dominate the room they hang in. Haunting and poignant, these portraits remind me what a true visionary Andy was’ (V. Fremont, Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits 1963-1986, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2005, p. 22).
These last self-portraits focus entirely on the artist’s face and the strands of hair in his silver wig exploding from the monochromatic background. Throughout his career, Warhol had carefully constructed legends surrounding the inspirations for his art which often centred on chance encounters with friends and confidants. Indeed the ‘fright wig’ works are no exception: London-based dealer Anthony d’Offay prompted Warhol to think about doing a new series of Self-Portraits in the winter of 1985-1986: ‘At Christmas we visited a collector friend of Lucio Amelio who had a powerful red portrait of Beuys by Andy Warhol hanging in his house. As I looked at the painting I realized two things; first that Warhol was without question the greatest portrait painter of the 20th Century, and secondly that it was many years since he had made an iconic self-portrait. A week later, I visited Warhol in New York and suggested to him an exhibition of new self-portraits. A month later he had a series of images to show me in all of which he was wearing the now famous “fright wig”. One of the images had not only a demonic aspect but reminded me more of a death mask. I felt it was tempting fate to choose this image, so we settled instead on a self-portrait with a hypnotic intensity. We agreed on the number of paintings and that some would have camouflage. When I returned to New York some weeks later the paintings were complete. The only problem was that Warhol had painted the demonic “Hammer House of Horror” image rather than the one we had chosen. I remonstrated with him and reminded him of our agreement. Without a demur he made all the pictures again but with the image we had first selected. And so between us we brought two great series of self-portraits into the world’ (Letter from Anthony d’Offay to D. Elger, 17 February 2004, quoted in D. Elger, ‘The Best American Invention – To be Able to Disappear’, D. Elger (ed.), Andy Warhol: Self-Portraits, Ostfldern-Ruit, 2004, p. 127). D’Offay selected the Polaroid with Warhol’s hair lying across his forehead, while Warhol preferred the image with a vertical tuft of hair sprouting up from his wig.
This exhibition – the last to take place in London during Warhol’s lifetime – was a spectacular critical and commercial success, though the predominant reaction from the public was one of shock. Many viewers left the show ‘deeply moved’ – Warhol’s friend and biographer David Bourdon recalled, ‘Some spectators interpreted the pictures as a momento mori, an unblinking, unsentimental view of a hurriedly approaching mortality. Others perceived them as a metaphor for the multiplicity of ways in which the artist was perceived’ (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 402). ‘We had enormous press coverage, lots of TV’, d’Offay remembered: ‘[Andy] came over for five days. It was fantastic. There were security guards and people asking him to sign their underwear. Four of the paintings were sold to museums. He was so amusing with the critics, too. He had this wonderful ability to work out what was lurking in the back of your mind’ (A. d’Offay, quoted in ‘Interview by Leo Hickman’, The Guardian, 4 February 2002).