The Birth of Cool: Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1963-1964
BY BRETT GORVY, CHRISTIE’S DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART warhol
“The reason why I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” – Andy Warhol cited in G.R. Swenson, ‘What is Pop Art?’ Art News, Nov 1963
Alongside Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol is one of the great 20th Century masters of the self-portrait. For an artist who so loathed his own self-image that he often resorted to make-up, wigs and even plastic surgery to disguise and hide himself, this makes his self-portraiture even more engaging as we try to deconstruct the real Andy Warhol behind the polite but wittily obtuse and evasive public persona. Andy Warhol’s four-paneled Self-Portrait, 1963-1964, is acclaimed in every Warhol monograph and exhibition catalogue as his first seminal self-portrait. It ranks not only as one of the most iconic and enigmatic portrayals of an artist’s own image, but its multi-panel format and use of mechanically-produced photographic imagery are also acknowledged as the most radical advancements in portraiture since Cubism.
Painted at the prime of his career, Self-Portrait documents publicly for the first time Warhol’s self-transformation from insecure commercial artist into the high priest of Pop Art and the arbiter of Sixties cool. It is no surprise that the painting was used as the cover for the ground-breaking Andy Warhol: A Retrospectiveexhibition in 1989, traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou in Paris; it was similarly featured as the cover and banner-image ofAndy Warhol: A Factory, the European survey organized by the Guggenheim in 1999.
Warhol is recognized today as an American icon, his public image transcending even his art as he has become as famous as the celebrities he portrayed. Whereas Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Wesselman and Rosenquist are all acknowledged as leading Pop artists alongside Warhol in the 1960s, only “Andy” has become the personification of the very era and the glamor he immortalized. It was the legendary dealer Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery, who suggested to Warhol that he paint his first self-portrait. “You know, people want to see you. Your looks are responsible for a certain part of your fame, they feed the imagination” (I. Karp, as cited in C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p.52). Karp enlisted the support of pioneering Detroit collector Florence Barron. She had initially been taken to Warhol’s studio to discuss the commission of her own portrait. In what was a brilliant reversal of the typical artist-patron relationship, Barron proposed instead that she would commission Warhol to paint his portrait for her – and to turn the icon-making apparatus of his Pop art vision on himself.
The self-portrait has been a major subject of art history since the Renaissance, often used by artists in order to investigate and express their inner psyche and emotions. Warhol’s response to this tradition was to create a seemingly anonymous and emotionally vacant self-image. Photographing himself in a public photo-booth, and wearing a raincoat and dark sunglasses, he is dressed in the stereotypical garb of a spy or a man trying his best to hide his identity. Warhol’s first self-portrait is therefore a revealing anti-self-portrait – a serial portrayal of a person deliberately hiding from the scrutiny of the camera lens and the glare of public exposure.
Like all of Warhol’s finest work from the early 1960s, his Self-Portrait both establishes and investigates the ambiguous nature of the act of looking by questioning its boundaries and exploring the limitations of artifice and the viewer’s voyeuristic impulse. Warhol’s decision to make his first self-portrait using a photobooth was a genius act that reflected both his admiration for Marcel Duchamp and the latter’s concept of the “ready-made” work of art, as well as Warhol’s own oft-stated desire to be a machine. The common dime store “photomat” clearly conformed with Warhol’s desire to create a new mechanical and democratic art for a massconsumer and mass-media obsessed world. The photobooth’s impersonal lens offered a nonprejudicial and artless image of whatever pose or face the sitter wished to present to it. Behind its closed curtain, anybody could be a “superstar” of their own making. While Warhol’s earlier use of photography had been restricted to the recycling of previously published media images, his discovery of the coin-operated photobooth gave him a means to generate unique images that at the same time had been made by a public machine that everyone had access to.
Warhol was inspired to use the photobooth after being commissioned byHarper’s Bazaar magazine to provide images for an article in the April 1963 issue entitled “Instant Self-Analysis, 25¢.” The article included photostrip stills of the composer La Monte Young, painter Larry Poons, curator Henry Geldzahler and Warhol himself. “Andy brought each subject to a Times Square Photomat and played with them,” recalled art director Ruth Ansel. “He encouraged them to loosen up while he dropped quarters into the machine” (As quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York 2009, p.161). The photobooth was the perfect tool for Warhol’s vision: he loved the photostrip’s seriality, its resemblance to filmstrips; he enjoyed the photobooth’s elimination of the photographer, and along with the silkscreen, its ability to remove Warhol’s art yet another step from the human touch. Within the private domain of the booth, one could act out one’s fantasies as though in front of the bathroom mirror; and he reveled in the sleaze factor – the booths in Times Square were especially disreputable places.
Soon after the Harper’s Bazaar commission, Warhol used the photobooth to create the 36 panel portrait of collector Ethel Scull. “I had great visions of going to Richard Avedon’s, of having these magnificent pictures of me taken, and then Andy would do the portrait,” stated Ethel Scull, who had dressed in an Yves Saint Laurent suit for the occasion. Instead Warhol took her down to an amusement arcade on 42nd Street which had several photobooth machines. “He said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and took out coins. He had about a hundred dollars’ worth of quarters He said, ‘Just watch the red light,’ and I froze. So Andy would come in and poke me and make me do all kind of things. I think the whole place thought they had two nuts here. We were running from one booth to another, and he took all these pictures and they were drying all over the place. And they were so sensational that I didn’t need Richard Avedon. I was so pleased. I think I’ll go there for all my pictures from now on” (E. Scull quoted in Andy Warhol: Photography, exh. cat., Hamburger, 1999, p. 89).
As with the Ethel Scull painting, Warhol’s Self-Portrait juxtaposes stills culled from strips of photobooth images: within the four-part composition he contrasts stoic expressionless faces with animated poses to create an almost film-like sense of narrative. Thus, Warhol uses disguise and theatricality to stage his personality in this work, representing himself as a hounded celebrity in trench coat and dark glasses as if he was trying to escape the glare of popping paparazzi flashbulbs. Despite the unwavering frontality (the seeming directness of the works has been compared to the simple truthfulness of Warhol’s Soup Can paintings), the portraits disclose little about Warhol’s inner life but reveal much about his consciousness of the artificiality of personal image. For Warhol, identity is the role one plays, the mask one chooses to wear. “I never like to give my background and anyway, I make it different all the time I’m asked,” he stated (A. Warhol quoted in G. Berg, “Andy Warhol: My True Story,” The East Village Other, 1 November 1966).
The four different poses of Self-Portrait allows the picture to be read like a book page, from left to right, top to bottom. The sequence of images suggests a mini-movie, corresponding to Warhol’s own film work such as his Screen Tests, where the sitter is left alone with a rolling movie camera and their personality played out in the stillness of the void. The serial nature of the portraits, like the Soup Cans, emphasizes a mass-produced quality and rather than providing more information, the repetition creates a numbness akin to the barrage of data constantly pushed by American advertising. Warhol’s choice of different hues of blue, with an electric intensity of tone that often defies illustration, helps the eye move from panel to panel. In the first image, Warhol stares directly at the viewer, his eyes shielded by the darkness of his glasses that masks any emotion. Warhol’s hand appears to be in movement, a gesture that creates a certain sense of vulnerability and self-protectiveness. In the next two panels, the artist jerks his head from side to side like a marionette, his tie now askew. The fourth frame ends any perceived drama with a straight-on confrontation, mouth firmly set.
The passport-like mug-shots convey a powerful sense of film noir, augmented by the graininess of the pixilated silkscreen. This accentuates Warhol’s presentation of himself as an outsider or indeed a “wanted” man or outlaw. In this respect, the artist was perhaps inspired by Marcel Duchamp, a heroic figure for Warhol whom he had recently met at a Duchamp retrospective in Pasadena in the autumn of 1963. At this exhibition, Duchamp’s own “Rectified Readymade” self-portrait,Wanted: $2000 Reward of 1923, had been used as the poster to advertise the show. Duchamp’s faux-self-portrait was an altered “Criminal Wanted” poster he had found in a New York restaurant and changed by inserting his own image in place of the criminal’s and altering the text accompanying it to read as a mock description of his own artistic activity as if it were a criminal one.
Almost certainly an influence on Warhol’s later silkscreen mug-shots ofAmerica’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men of 1964, Duchamp’s “ready-made” self-portrait as a wanted criminal also finds an echo in the mug-shot-like self-depiction Warhol offers up in this four-part Self-Portrait. Here Warhol too presents himself as both an outsider from society and as an enigma – a face that hides its features and reflects the viewer’s gaze back on itself. A clever conceptual device that deflects the inquiry of the viewer, it is also a pose, an artifice that transforms Warhol’s image into a mystery man, part Clark Kent or Dick Tracy, part the Shadow, a figure who hides beneath the superficial surface imagery of his pictures. In this respect, the work establishes itself as not just the first icon of the famously empty, enigmatic and often frighteningly clairvoyant persona that Warhol would build for himself and increasingly present to the world, but also as the origin of the Warhol myth. “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 K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 45).