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.
January 31, 2010:
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade is the first United States museum exhibition of the late works of American artist Andy Warhol (1928–1987) and the first major Warhol survey in New York since the 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Created amid the frenetic activity of Warhol’s celebrity, the nearly fifty paintings on view reveal the artist’s vitality, energy, and spirit of experimentation. During this time Warhol produced more works, in a considerable number of series and on a vastly larger scale, than at any other point in his forty-year career. It was a decade of great artistic development for him, characterized by a dramatic transformation of his style and the introduction of new techniques.
Warhol’s active social life, continuing business ventures, print projects, television productions, fashion engagements, and renewed interest in painting combined to make the artist’s final decade one of the busiest in his career. Beginning with the Oxidation series of 1977–78 and the screened Shadows initiated in 1978, he began exploring abstract art, a conceptual and stylistic break from his Pop imagery of the 1960s. Over the next ten years, his prolific output of paintings included a return to the figurative inspired by his collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and Keith Haring; black-and-white paintings based on magazine advertisements; psychologically revealing fright-wig self-portraits; the Camouflage works; and explorations of religious themes, including the Last Supper paintings, which infused Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Italian fresco with a pop sensibility and constituted the largest series that Warhol produced throughout his career.
Together, these works demonstrate how Warhol simultaneously incorporated the screened image and pursued a reinvention of painting. Created alongside his commissioned portraits and print series, many of these late paintings were personal projects that were not exhibited until after the artist’s death on February 22, 1987.
The works in the exhibition are on loan from private and public collections. Included are examples of the Oxidation series, in which urine is a component; the mysteriously evocative Shadows, some with diamond dust; a late example of Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup (Tomato) from his Retrospectives and Reversals series; the Yarn paintings, a direct reference to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; monumental Rorschach paintings; and a version of The Last Supper, featuring images of Christ juxtaposed with a price tag and Mineola motorcycles, that is included in the Fort Worth and Brooklyn presentations only.
Andy Warhol: The Last Decade is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition was curatedby Joseph D. Ketner II, Henry and Lois Foster Chair of Contemporary Art, Emerson College, Boston. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is organized by Sharon Matt Atkins, Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum.
The Brooklyn presentation is supported by the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin exhibition fund. Additional generous support is provided by the Steven A. and Alexandra M. Cohen Foundation, Inc.
The New York Observer is media sponsor.
An exhibition catalogue, published by the Milwaukee Art Museum and DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel Publishing, includes essays by Joseph D. Ketner II, Keith Hartley, and Gregory Volk, along with a contribution by Bruno Bischofberger and out-of-print essays by Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel.
Milwaukee Art Museum: September 26, 2009–January 3, 2010
Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth: February 14–May 16, 2010
Brooklyn Museum: June 18–September 12, 2010
Baltimore Museum of Art: October 17, 2010–January 9, 2011