Painted in 1986, Andy Warhol’s Statue of Liberty is a shrewd and clever homage to the symbolic ideals of the American dream. The large-scale, six-foot-square painting presents that most iconic American image, the Statue of Liberty, with her impenetrable facade that displays the unwavering commitment to the values of democratic freedom. Warhol’s first paintings of the Statue of Liberty date to 1962, when he painted two versions of the colossal sculpture based on a postcard of New York harbor. Warhol then revisited this iconic image during the late 1980s, which proved to be a period of both retrospective reassessment and abundant creativity. Rendered in an elegant palette that evokes Picasso’s Blue Period, Warhol overlays the iconic image of Lady Liberty with a powerful recurring motif—camouflage. The wry sense of irony in depicting a pattern designed to make its subject disappear must have appealed to Warhol, because he used the pattern in several works that year, including the celebrated Fright Wig self portraits and Last Supper. By rendering that most quintessential American icon in camouflage, Warhol invokes the specter of war that pervades the complicated narrative of American history, the Reagan-era politics that shaped the nation and the provocative sentiment “freedom isn’t free.” A powerful political critique clad in the vivid candy-colors of Pop, Warhol’s Statue of Liberty is a potent reminder that his most iconic imagery is always more complex than its gleaming Pop surface would suggest.
In the spring of 1986, Andy Warhol traveled to Paris to attend the world premiere of his Statue of Liberty series, where ten of the large-scale, six-foot Statue of Liberty paintings were exhibited at the Galerie Lavignes-Bastille. A Parisian opening for such an iconic American image was indeed a fitting one for Warhol’s Statue of Liberty, since another quintessentially American series made their debut in Paris as well. In early 1964, Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings opened at the Paris gallery of Ileana Sonnabend. And indeed, Warhol’s first paintings of the Statue of Liberty date to 1962—the same year as the Death and Disaster series.
In Statue of Liberty, Warhol returns to the ubiquitous symbol of America in a large-scale, vividly-colored canvas. While the 1962 paintings depicted a full-length view of the colossal sculpture, in the present work, Warhol zooms in on the essential elements. He portrays a close-up view of Lady Liberty’s steely expression, whose unwavering commitment to freedom and liberty is symbolically conveyed by her massive, implacable façade and large, pointed crown. Rather than depict the sculpture in the classic green color of its oxidized copper armature, Warhol instead renders the painting in a symphony of blues, as if passed through a kaleidoscopic prism of blue camouflage. This remarkable technique has the dual-fold effect of simultaneously highlighting and obscuring the image, a technique Warhol exploited to great degree in his own series of Fright Wig self-portraits that same year.
A keen observer of contemporary culture, Warhol could not have avoided the Statue of Liberty in the media that year, since 1986 marked the centennial anniversary of the iconic sculpture’s debut. Designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, the colossal sculpture was given as a gift to the American people as a celebration of democracy and unveiled in 1886. One hundred years later, over the 4th of July weekend 1986, the United States celebrated the centennial with the dramatic unveiling of the recently restored statue, which had undergone a costly, two-year period of restoration. In the media frenzy leading up to the highly-televised event, the Statue of Liberty was featured on nearly every conceivable media outlet, in newspapers and magazines, but also in commemorative tchotchkes like coins and keychains. Warhol, undoubtedly fascinated by this degree of media saturation, based his Statue of Liberty on a commemorative tin of cookies that featured the Statue of Liberty on its lid. The logo of the original tin is retained in the lower left corner of Statue of Liberty, which displays the French and American flags and the name of the cookie: “Les bons biscuits Fabis.” Like Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup, Warhol retains the original brand name in the painting, lending a touch of irony to his revered portrayal of the cherished American icon.
Writing in his diary five years earlier, Warhol described the swearing-in of President Ronald Reagan, which he attended on January 20, 1981 in Washington, D.C. Though Warhol’s political leanings were tenuous at best, he nevertheless possessed an abiding interest in politics, having depicted some of the world’s most memorable and charismatic leaders, and he met with both President and Nancy Reagan during his lifetime. Ever conscious of the trends and values that shaped the country, Warhol recognized the importance of the 1986 centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty and the photo-op it provided for Reagan, who delivered a rousing speech before unveiling the newly-restored statue amidst a dramatic fireworks display. A shrewdly-calculated media event, the centennial celebration was seized upon as a symbolic moment of optimism for a country during a turbulent period.
Throughout his career, Warhol gravitated toward the most ubiquitous and ordinary products of everyday life, from a can of Campbell’s soup to a box of Brillo pads. Alongside the homogenous products of postwar America, he depicted its most glittering stars, always seizing upon the tragic nature of their fame. In rendering Statue of Liberty, Warhol takes on one of the most pervasive American emblems, but clads her in camouflage. He thereby manages to conflate both of these conflicting viewpoints, in a powerful portrayal that references the often clandestine military operations necessary to preserve the very liberty she aims to project.