Andy Warhol Self-Portraits
Article added on July 13, 2004, last update July 15, 2004
Andy Warhol's self-portraits
occupy a central position in the artist's body of work. Astonishingly, the
bilingual (German-English) catalogue accompanying the exhibitions in St.
Gallen (Switzerland), Hannover (Germany) and Edinburgh (Scotland) is the first
monograph dedicated exclusively to Andy Warhol's self-portraits.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) has worked on self-portraits during his entire
artistic life. The exhibition and catalogue present 85 works, ranging from
some of his first attempts as a teenager to the Fright Wig series
completed shortly before his death in February 1987.
As early as 1948/49, as a twenty-year-old student in Pittsburgh, the young man's originality came to light in two works on
paper showing him nose-picking (Upper Torso Boy Picking Nose and Full
Figure Boy Picking Nose, cat. 39 & 40, both 1948/49, graphite on
paper, 27,9 x 21,6 cm). This universal habit has probably never been chosen
before by an artist as a subject for a self-portrait. The two works document
not only Andy Warhol's originality, but also his sense of humor as well as his
ability and will to shock his audience. In this last regard, in his catalogue
essay Robert Rosenblum compares them to Egon Schiele's depictions of himself
masturbating. Rosenblum concludes: "From the beginning, Warhol offered a
contradictory balance between up-close intimacy and calculated artifice."
Andy Warhol's self-portraits are rarely an exercise of uncompromising honesty,
but rather an art of disguise and deception in which - like an actor - he
plays roles. However, many works are a mix of both, telling us all and nothing
about himself. An exception form some of the polaroid photographs, which
"seem to reveal a troubling fragility of the artist as a human being and
as a man, in search of his own identity", as I already wrote in my
article about some Polaroid self-portraits shown in the Miami Art Museum
in the context of the exhibition About Face.
In the bilingual catalogue Andy
Warhol Selbstportraits / Self-Portraits,
the polaroids Self-Portrait in Drag of 1981, especially cat. 70 &
71, but also Self-Portrait (in Blue Shirt, Eyes Starring) of 1977/1978
enter into this category. Here and in other polaroids, we seem to encounter an
undisguised, "naked" Warhol who does not pose for an audience. It is
probably no accident that all the troubling polaroids are unique works, which
did artist did not use for his different series of prints.
According to Rosenblum, already in his first self-portraits created within the
context of the new-born Pop Art, Andy Warhol "sees himself as instant
theatre, as a glamorous celebrity hounded by paparazzi." Rosenblum
reminds readers: "In 1963, an adventurous collector, Florence Barron, had
the brilliant and surprising idea of commissioning Warhol to do his own
self-portrait, a reversal of the usual role of patron and artist and one that
also challenged the familiar situation of self-portraiture as the artist's own
choice as a vehicle for private disclosure. Warhol rose to the occasion with a
series of mug shots taken in a photo booth [illustrated on page 28 of the
catalogue; the four acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas self-portraits of
1963/1964 are part of the Collection Guy and Nora Barron], exactly the same
kind of mechanical populist image-maker he had used earlier that year for
portraits of the collector Ethel Scull and of the cabaret star Bobby
Short." Rosenblum concludes that Warhol's series of self-portraits for
Florence Barron "are pure theatre. Warhol looks like the kind of
celebrity he began to frequent - masking his eyes with sun glasses, affecting
poses for the invisible camera man, offering a minor cinematic narrative of
undoing his shirt and tie." The colors used can be described as
"mint" or "lavender". They contributed to the glamorous
style, evoking a Hollywood screen test. The self-portrait series can also be
read as "a revelation of Warhol's personal and professional ambitions in
1963 to become a star", as Rosenblum states too.
In 1978, on the occasion of a large exhibition which traveled from the
Kunsthaus in Zurich (Switzerland) to the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek
(Denmark), Andy Warhol went one step further and produced a wallpaper using
one of his self-portraits, which decorated the walls of the exhibition rooms,
further undermining "the traditions of uniqueness and privacy, associated
Andy Warhol's lifelong obsession with self-portraiture and mortality, which
started with his childhood indoctrination with Catholicism, was enhanced by
three dangerous encounters in the 1960s. "In 1964, Dorothy Podber,
dressed in a black leather motorcycle jacket, walked into the Factory, removed
her white gloves, took out a pistol and shot at a stack of forty-inch-square
Marilyn Monroe portraits and then left. The hole in the canvases (which were
later referred to as "Shot Marilyns") were repaired, but the human
trauma lasted...". In 1967, "a man arrived at the Factory and
threatened Warhol and other members of his staff with a gun that he then shot
against the wall." The most dangerous and life-threatening encounter came
on June 3, 1968 when "the deranged Valerie Solanas entered the Factory
and shot not at paintings or at the wall, but at Warhol himself, who was
gravely injured and lucky to have survived."
Andy Warhol documented the effects of the attack with Royalton Bonus
photographs of Andy Warhol in Columbus Hospital after shooting, 1968 (cat.
49), which show the artist's impressive scars on the upper body as he takes a
flash photograph of himself in front of a mirror. The close encounter with
death subsequently inspired the artist to numerous self-portraits as well as
to several series', including Skulls in 1976 and Guns in 1982,
screenprints of the type of the revolver Valerie Solanas had used on her attack
Andy Warhol's ambition of creating celebrity photographs recognized worldwide
were more than fulfilled after his death. In 2002, the United States Postal
Service used his 1964 self-portrait on a thirty-seven-cent postage stamp in
order to commemorate the artist, his fame and legacy. The artist's
self-portrait was now sent around the world on millions of envelopes.
Therefore, the United States Postal Service managed to create the ultimate
Warhol series - one that every collector can afford.
Essential for any collector: Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisoné, Vol. 1:
Paintings and Sculpture, 1961-1963. Phaidon, March 2002, 512 p. Edited by
Georg Frei and Neil Printz. Get it from Amazon.com
The catalogue: Andy
Warhol Selbstportraits / Self-Portraits. Bilingual catalogue German/English by Hatje Cantz,
2004, 154 p. Get the book from Amazon.de,
The exhibition: Andy Warhol Selbstportraits / Self-Portraits:
- Kunstverein St. Gallen Kunstmuseum: June 12 - September 12, 2004.
- Sprengel Museum Hannover: October 3, 2004 - January 16, 2005.
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: February 12 - May 2,