With his characteristic bravado, in Four White on White Mona Lisas (Reversal Series) Andy Warhol fuses the High Renaissance with Pop Art. Returning to a subject matter he first tackled nearly two decades earlier, Warhol demonstrates that the perceptive eye that first led him to produce his iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962, never abandoned him in the intervening years. This painting is a preceptive reexamination of the power of the image, and an enduring demonstration of his considerable talents as both an artist and also as one of the dominant cultural forces of the twentieth century.
The Mona Lisa is more than an extraordinary painting, she is the ideal woman, as well as the ideal work of art”
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
Painted in 1980, with this work Warhol returned his attention to the most famous painting in the world. He first painted Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece in 1963, when the painting made a rare visit to the United States of America. It was during its exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that Warhol became fascinated by the continued power of this centuries old painting. Over 1.6 million people, many of them queuing for hours, saw the painting during its seven week sojourn, accompanied by countless column inches of press coverage and endless hours of TV broadcasts. In this respect the sitter in da Vinci’s enigmatic portrait, Lisa Gherardini—the wife of a prominent Florentine cloth merchant, was like any of Warhol’s other celebrity superstars, namely, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley or Marlon Brando. In Four White on White Mona Lisas, the artist transforms the familiar portrait into ghostly apparitions that dissolve into the background, and the familiar Mona Lisa of the sixteenth century becomes seductively blurred in our minds.
The present canvas belongs to Warhol’s Reversals Series, a body of work that the artist began in the late 1970s when he revisited subject matter from earlier in his career, including Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, and here, the Mona Lisa. With these works, the artist flipped the tonal values, layering lighter shades on darker grounds so that his subjects appeared like photographic negatives. By 1980, Warhol’s silkscreen technique had developed in a series of more gestural paintings that were distinguished by a more casual sketchiness, and he had begun to increasingly use a white on white palette to dematerialize his subject into an abstracted, nearly unrecognizable portrait. In this particular work, Warhol also introduces an added layer of visual intrigue as, when viewed under ultraviolet light, the painting glows with added detail, a technique he first investigated in 1966, when he included invisible inks in a series of paintings of the human body. In these four vignettes, each Mona Lisa is rendered slightly differently; her famous enigmatic smile, and the details of her hand or eyes gradually become indistinct in our memory. Coated with slick layers of semi-gloss paint, Warhol's directional brushstrokes create an immediacy that further distances the reverberating Four White on White Mona Lisas.
Warhol was not the first artist to appropriate Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece in a more contemporary manner. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp famously adorned a postcard sized reproduction of her famous visage with a mustache and goatee. While Duchamp was attempting to subvert the pretenses of museum and high-art culture, Warhol takes Leonardo's subject as a readymade icon, the ultimate celebrity of art history, or a brand as famous as Campbell's Soup and the Brillo Box. In 1963, the painting was particularly well-suited for Warhol since, to celebrate the Mona Lisa's arrival in New York, museum vendors and tourist shops sold endless reproductions on coffee cups and tote bags. In fact, the artist's source image in the 1960s was taken from a Metropolitan Museum's exhibition brochure. Four White on White Mona Lisas, included an even more layered method of appropriation as the work copied Warhol's past motifs, which replicated the brochure that reproduced the original, four times over. The artist gleefully frees the Mona Lisa of its clear referent, as it has become so intermingled with different stages of Warhol's own art. Adopted into his iconography, Four White on White Mona Lisas, memorializes Warhol's own canon of famous women, showing his mastery of appropriation and transformative imagery.
In this 1980 work, Warhol draws on the rebellious spirit of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Jasper Johns’ Flags and Targets forced the viewer to look again at familiar images with a different kind of perception. But Warhol's increasing preoccupation with mortality—which followed his near-death experience when Valerie Solanas attempted to assassinate him in 1968—is amplified in his works of the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, Warhol's work becomes increasingly personal, still mediating on themes of death and violence, but more often, in terms of his own limited lifespan. His apt plundering of past motifs finds special resonance in Four White on White Mona Lisas, as she represents an image that has endured for over five hundred years. Warhol's eerie white coloring recalls the Renaissance tradition of casting death masks that preserve the likeness of the recently deceased. Similarly, in his 1980 work, he revisits his 1960s icon by using his past silkscreen, which will preserve his two-toned subject ad infinitum. As the de facto leader of Pop Art, Warhol seamlessly interweaves notions of consumerism, high art, artifice and mortality via the perpetual reproduction of imagery. His super-flat surfaces and silhouettes of ghostly white pigment point to a metaphysical nothingness beyond his glossy surface of paint, recalling his famous statement, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it" (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, "Nothing to Lose: Interview with Andy Warhol," Cahiers du Cinema, May 1967, p. 40).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).