Andy Warhol. The Last Decade

Anne Mannix

Magazine issue: 
#4 2010 (29)


The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) was the final venue of the four-museum tour to present the first U.S. museum exhibition exploring the late works of the iconic American artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987). On view there from October 2010 through January 2011, more than 50 works revealed the Pop artistʼs energetic return to painting and renewed spirit of experimentation during the last decade of his life. This period shows Warhol in the midst of his celebrity creating more paintings and on a vastly larger scale than at any other moment of his 40-year career. Exhibition highlights include psychologically revealing fright wig self-portraits, three variations on Leonardo da Vinciʼs The Last Supper, and collaborations with younger artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Several of these works – assembled from national and international public and private collections, as well as the BMAʼs exceptional collection of late works by Warhol – were not exhibited until after the artistʼs death.

In 1965, at the height of his fame as a Pop artist, Warhol announced that he was "retiring" from painting to make films. Nearly a decade later, he reversed direction and began to vigorously pursue painting once more. The abstract works that he produced late in his career are a radical departure for an artist who, up until then, had been strongly associated with pictures of recognizable products and personalities.

To create the Oxidations (1978), Warhol, his assistants, and visitors to his studio urinated on canvases prepared with metallic paints, causing color variation through a chemical reaction. The resulting images, which may be read as either vulgar or beautiful, are characteristic of the ambiguity Warhol cultivated around his work.

For the Shadows (1978-79), Warhol silkscreened over a background to which paint had been applied with a mop. Competing stories about the source of the shadows indicate that they might have been objects in Warhol's studio or perhaps parts of the human anatomy. The artist himself described the works noncommittally as "disco decor," a reference to the music played at the opening party for the Shadows' first exhibition in New York. Warhol concluded: "This show will be like all the others. The review will be bad - my reviews always are. But the reviews of the party will be terrific."

Enthusiastic about his new ventures into abstraction, Warhol continued with his Rorschachs (1984), made by painting one side of a massive canvas, then folding it in half to create a doubled image through the most elementary of printing techniques. These images recall actual psychological tests in which subjects reveal their thoughts as they respond to undefined symmetrical forms.

The Yarn and Camouflage Paintings
Prompted by a commission from an Italian yarn manufacturer, Warhol continued to pursue abstraction in a 1983 series in which he silkscreened rainbows of yarn across the pictures' surfaces. These entirely mechanically-produced, banal tangles of line call to mind Jackson Pollock's celebrated Abstract Expressionist drip paintings. At the same time, they stand in counterpoint to Pollock's heroically expressive hand-application of paint. The Camouflage paintings (1986) take a ready-made pattern and emphasize its formal and decorative qualities through exuberant color combinations and repetition of discrete sections of the functional military design. While this series also suggests the all-over fields of shape and color of mid-20th-century abstract painting, it further evokes the palette and bold forms of Henri Matisse, an artist whom Warhol identified as a role model and whose work can be viewed in the BMA's Cone Wing. With its implication of shielding whatever lies underneath, camouflage serves as a provocative emblem for an artist who claimed that everything about his art and himself lay on the surface.

The Photo Silkscreen Process
Throughout much of his career, Andy Warhol used photo silkscreens to create his bright, bold, sharply defined images. Fascinated with the possibilities offered by techniques of mass production, he collaborated with commercial photography studios and printers to produce many of the paintings in this exhibition.

Warhol started with a photograph, either one he took himself or one that he found in a magazine, advertisement, newspaper, or collection of movie stills. He sent the photo to a photography studio which transformed it into a high contrast black and white image on transparent film. Then a commercial silkscreen shop used the transparent film to transfer the black and white image to silk fabric stretched over a frame.

At the silkscreen shop, the silk was treated to allow ink to pass through some areas of the fabric while blocking the ink in other areas. Once the screen was returned from the shop, Warhol and his studio assistants could print the image directly onto any number of canvases. The canvases would already have been painted with one or more solid colors.

To reproduce the image on the painted canvas, printer's ink was pushed across the screen's surface with a rubber blade called a squeegee. The squeegee forced the paint through the screen in an even layer of tiny dots, but only in the unblocked areas. Using this multi-step process, Warhol introduced a fresh approach to contemporary painting that became widely recognized as his signature style. During the last decade of his career, Warhol returned to painting with brush in hand, often mixing "hand painting" and silkscreen in the same artwork.

As Warhol was developing his abstract paintings, the Neo-Expressio-nists burst onto the New York art scene with their dramatic and emotionally charged depictions of figurative subjects. In October 1982, the Swiss gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger introduced Warhol to Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young artist associated with the group. Bas-quiat was recognized for bringing a street sensibility into the world of fine art, blending high and low culture in a way that resonated with Warhol's career. Warhol was impressed with the facility of the young painter who was more than three decades his junior, and the two developed a close relationship that lasted nearly three years. Afternoons in the studio were spent collaborating on paintings followed by clubbing at night. At the height of the Collaborations, Warhol confessed that "Jean-Michel got me into painting different, so that's a good thing." And that "good thing" was to paint by hand with a brush. Recognizing the extraordinary potential of this partnership, Bischofberger commissioned a series of collaborations between Warhol, Basquiat, and Italian painter Francesco Clemente, resulting in pieces such as Origin of Cotton (1984). When the series was complete, Warhol and Basquiat continued to work together, producing more than one hundred paintings. In the early stages of their collaboration, Warhol screened his logos as a ground onto which Basquiat painted snarling faces and coarse graffiti scripts. As time went on, Basquiat began to add screened imagery, and Warhol, after years of screening, mopping, and pressing to produce his paintings, rediscovered figure painting with a brush. As such, the Collaborations mark not only Warhol's return to hand painting, but his return to figure painting as well.

Like Warhol's works of the 1960s and 1970s, the Collaborations are a mirror of the times in which they were made. In Untitled (Heart Attack) (1984), for instance, Warhol incorporated the headline, "Jessie [will] Join Fritz, But I'm My Own Man," an allusion to Jesse Jackson and Walter (Fritz) Mondale, both Democratic candidates in the 1984 presidential primary.

Black & White ads and physiological Diagrams
During the 1950s, the young Warhol was a successful graphic designer of fashionable commercial layouts. In 1985, he returned to advertising imagery but drew his source images from the black and white drawings and text of cheap newspaper ads, notices at the back of muscle magazines, and evangelical religious pamphlets. Similar kinds of humble and nostalgic images had appeared previously in transitional paintings that Warhol made on his way to establishing his signature Pop style in the first years of the 1960s.

Warhol's renditions of bodybuilders in the Black & White Ads relate to another series that includes Physiological Diagram (c. 19841985). The artist produced these paintings of the human figure at a time that corresponded to the outset of the public health crisis of HIV/AIDS, as well as his increasing awareness of his own aging body. Warhol, who had consistently demonstrated a reverence for the physical beauty of the subjects of his art as well as the circle of associates around his studio and gathering place, known as the Factory, was himself considerably weakened due to injuries he sustained during a 1968 attempt on his life. By the 1980s, he was following an exercise regime and became interested in alternative, New Age medical practices and related imagery, such as the chart appearing in Physiological Diagram.

Black & White ads
Warhol created the Black & White Ads using his "patented" Pop art process: clipping ads, projecting them, tracing the projections onto paper, and having acetates made that were then screen printed. However, in some, spurred by the Collaborations with Basquiat, Warhol hand painted the ads onto paper, and then had silkscreens made of the paintings, leaving bristles, brushwork, and paint drips visible in the finished print. Warhol's freehand draftsmanship and fluid brushwork enliven the surface of these works, which are essentially silks-creened reproductions of his original brush drawings.

In the larger Black & White Ads, he painted directly on the canvas, tracing over the projection of an ad, such as in The Last Supper (Be Somebody with a Body) (1985-86) and Double $5/Weight-lifter (1985-86).

These works display Warhol's fluid brushwork and supple line. Throughout the Black & White Ads, Warhol toys mischievously with the confusion between manual and mechanical processes, embracing the possibilities of deception by both hand and machine.

Like Rembrandt and Picasso, Warhol was prolific in his production of self-portraits. The most widely recognized are his fright-wig self-portraits (1986), a series of variations of his head floating against a void, with his wig wildly coifed like the signature Rasta hairstyle of his friend Basquiat. Compared to the Self-portrait. Wallpaper produced just eight years earlier, the fright-wig paintings present a severe, aged, and disturbing picture of the artist.

At the same time, both the outline figure of the earlier wallpaper and the disembodied head of the later paintings convey a ghostly image of the artist, who once commented: "I'm sure I'm going to look in the mirror and see nothing. People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?"

The Last Supper
Commissioned by Greek dealer Alexandre Iolas, who had given Warhol his first solo exhibition in 1952, The Last Supper paintings inaugurated Iolas's new gallery in Milan, across the street from the site of Leonardo da Vinci's fresco The Last Supper (c. 1495-98). For that exhibition, Warhol created a series of silkscreen paintings, which were mounted directly on the wall to emulate Leonardo's frescoes. He made additional versions by projecting source images onto canvas and then tracing the figures by hand. Warhol worked for more than a year on what would prove to be one of his final great series. In all, he produced more than one hundred Last Supper paintings, including some of the largest works of his career. When asked whether the image of The Last Supper had any particular meaning for him, Warhol cagily replied, "No. It's a good picture." It was not until the reading of the eulogy at the artist's funeral that most people became aware that Warhol had been a practicing Catholic. These paintings may manifest both his private religious beliefs and his irreverence toward the subject, the latter expressed through the ironic insertion of commercial logos and potentially transgressive repetitions of Jesus Christ's image. In retrospect, there is heightened poignancy in Warhol's interpretations of Jesus's final meal with his disciples not long before the artist's death on February 22 1987, due to unexpected complications following gall bladder surgery.





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play