Andy Warhol: The Last Decade
- Dates: June 18, 2010 through September 12, 2010
- Collections: Contemporary Art
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade
In the vanguard of the Pop art revolution in the early 1960s, Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) created images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans that became icons of celebrity and American consumer culture. Using the visual style and production process he learned while working as a commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s, Warhol began mechanically transferring images borrowed from popular culture to create vibrant new works that altered the course of American art. Virtually his entire reputation is based on the Pop art he produced from 1962 to 1968, but that work represents only seven of nearly forty years of artistic production.
After an attempt on his life in 1968, Warhol transitioned his studio practice into a portrait and film business. A decade later, he turned fifty and began a critical assessment of his life and career that brought about a radical metamorphosis in his art. Warhol’s last decade is, arguably, when the artist was at his most productive. He expanded both his business and his artistic ventures, experiencing an extraordinary period of creativity in television, fashion, and printmaking, and creating a little known body of personal paintings that were rarely exhibited in his lifetime.
Weary of the business of producing portraits on commission, Warhol began to experiment with “newer ideas” about 1978. He introduced abstraction, returned to painting by hand, and engaged in a dialogue between abstract and figurative painting. Over his last decade Warhol explored a dizzying range of new imagery and processes in numerous series such as the Oxidations, Shadows, Rorschachs, Collaborations, Black & White Ads, and finally The Last Supper. This exhibition focuses on the late paintings, which show the complex relationship between the two poles of Warhol’s work: his mechanically produced icons of popular culture, and his extraordinary technical facility as a painter and draftsman.
In 1965, at the height of his fame as a Pop artist, Warhol announced that he was retiring from painting to concentrate on making films. Indeed, he began to focus on his filmmaking, but he continued to paint portraits and other series throughout the 1970s. In the summer of 1977, while touring art museums in Paris, he had a revelation and wrote in his diary, “I had energy and wanted to rush home and paint and stop doing society portraits.” He began painting abstractions for the first time, in a complete reversal of his Pop art. For Warhol, serious painting now meant abstraction.
Radically departing from his screened popular images and society portraits, he created two series—the Oxidations and the Shadows—in which he developed two novel approaches to abstraction. In these series Warhol aspired to achieve the sheer “physical presence” of color, line, and form that he had noted in 1963: “All painting is fact, and that is enough; the paintings are charged with their very presence. . . . Physical presence.”
As Warhol was developing his abstract paintings, a group called the Neo-Expressionists burst onto the New York art scene, emphasizing a return to painting recognizable objects using loose brushwork and bright colors, in reaction to the minimal, conceptual art of the 1970s. In October 1982, the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger introduced Warhol to one of these young painters, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The two developed a close relationship that lasted nearly three years. They collaborated on paintings in the studio in the afternoon and went clubbing at night.
Recognizing the extraordinary potential of this partnership, Bischofberger commissioned a series of collaborations between Warhol, Basquiat, and the Italian painter Francesco Clemente. When the series was complete, Warhol continued to work with Basquiat. Warhol confessed, “Jean-Michel got me into painting different, so that’s a good thing.” That “good thing” was to paint by hand with a brush. The Collaborations mark not only Warhol’s return to hand-painting but also his renewed interest in figure painting.
Black & White Ads
In this series, Warhol reproduced advertisements that he appropriated from popular and pulp magazines for products such as Campbell’s Soup and current fitness fads, as well as those expressing his own political and religious beliefs.
To produce most of these paintings, Warhol returned to one of his Pop art processes: clipping ads from magazines and tabloids, projecting and tracing them onto paper, and then screenprinting the images. In some, such as Campbell’s Soup (Tomato), Warhol—spurred by the Collaborations with Basquiat—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 silkscreened reproductions of his original brush drawings. In others, the artist painted directly on the canvas, using a projected image as a guide. Throughout the Black & White Ads, Warhol toys mischievously with the confusion between manual and mechanical processes.
Warhol's Last Paintings
The most prolific period of Warhol’s life was from late 1985 until his death in February 1987. The demands of his multitude of painting projects, print series, television productions, and fashion engagements, as well as his active social life, made this period the busiest of his career. The artist’s compulsive production culminated in three remarkable series: the so-called fright-wig Self-Portraits, the Camouflage paintings, and The Last Supper. In each, Warhol utilized a different subject and technique, and experimented with the dualities of abstraction and representation, painting and printing, and surface and meaning.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper series was commissioned to inaugurate a new gallery in Milan, Italy, located across the street from the site of the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic fresco (circa 1495–98) depicting Jesus’s last meal with his followers. Warhol worked obsessively for more than a year on this series, producing more than a hundred Last Supper paintings, both silkscreened and hand-painted, that were some of the largest paintings of his career.
Despite his public proclamations to the contrary, Warhol was profoundly moved by the series. Of these works, he remarked, “I painted them all by hand—I myself; so now I’ve become a Sunday painter. . . . That’s why the project took so long. But I worked with a passion.” These paintings manifest both his religious beliefs—his practice of Catholicism remained private until it was revealed at his funeral—and an irreverence toward the subject, expressed through ironic commercial logos and transgressive repetitions of Christ’s image.
Less than a month following his exhibition of The Last Supper in Milan, Warhol had emergency gallbladder surgery. Several days later, on February 22, 1987, he died.