Camouflage. Andy Warhol. 1986. Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. ©2010 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
“I don’t paint anymore,” the iconic gay artist Andy Warhol announced in 1966. “I gave it up about a year ago… Painting was just a phase I went through.” Indeed, for the remainder of the ’60s and well into the ’70s, Warhol focused on film (Blow Job, My Hustler), television (Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes), publishing (Interview magazine), and celebrity portraiture (Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger). But ten years before his death in 1986, Warhol was moved to explore painting again in news ways—and to create some of his most personal and meaningful work.
Same Sensibility, New Style
By the mid-70s, Warhol was renowned for his experimental films and silk-screened Pop art images of soup cans and celebrities. From the beginning of his career, his work also addressed gay themes and homoerotic subject matter. For his first individual exhibition, at New York’s Hugo Gallery in 1952, Warhol showed “Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.” At the time, (closeted) gay artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg reportedly found Warhol to be “too swish.”
“I decided that I just wasn’t going to care,” Warhol wrote in Popism: The Warhol Sixties (1975). “Other people could change their attitudes but not me.”
While his attitude remained the same, Warhol’s style in the late ’70s took a dramatic turn. As he turned 50, his work became both introspective and retrospective, as seen in work like his self-portrait wallpaper, which repeats a delicate line drawing of a youthful Warhol screened over a lavender color block and pink triangle.
In the early ’80s, Warhol also created a series of collaborative paintings with younger artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. Warhol was particularly inspired by Basquiat’s wild, primitive approach to painting, and the opportunity to mix graffiti and street imagery with Warhol’s Pop vocabulary.
“I visited them at the Factory several times while they were painting together,” wrote Keith Haring in a 1988 essay. “Jean-Michel’s painting posture and disregard for technique created a mood of unnerving spectacle… Andy was intrigued and intimidated at the same time. It seemed to push him to new heights.”
Art in the Age of AIDS
By the mid-80s, Ronald Reagan was President , the conservative Moral Majority wielded great power, and AIDS was decimating the gay community. Warhol returned to patented Pop art techniques, but with a new perspective. His Black & White Ad series includes not only soup cans, but also imagery that confronts political and religious questions. Works like Are You Different? speak directly to the dis-ease felt by many gays at the time, while Repent and Sin No More! appropriates the negative messages of gay’s adversaries. Warhol’s self-portraits in a fright-wig might be read as a literal representation of the anxiety he and many other gay men felt at the time. Meanwhile, his Camouflage series explored abstraction, as Warhol reduced menacing imagery to playful, decorative designs.
The most revelatory of his final paintings, though, are those in the The Last Supper series. Privately, Warhol practiced Catholicism throughout his life, and these paintings reveal his fascination with Christ’s final meeting with his disciples. Some, like The Last Supper (Be Somebody with a Body) also reflect an internal conflict felt by many gay Catholics.
The Final Decade: The Exhibition
More than 50 paintings from this final period of Warhol’s career are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Andy Warhol: The Final Decade, beginning October 17. The exhibition was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, with contributions from the Andy Warhol Museum, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and other collections. All of the major series are represented, including self-portraits, collaborations with Basquiat, and The Last Supper. An interactive “Last Decade Lounge” also features television programs produced by Warhol, copies of Interview magazine, and music of the period.
What: Andy Warhol: The Final Decade
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art
Art Museum Drive
N. Charles and 31st Streets
When: October 17, 2010 –January 9, 2011
Tickets: $5-15, free for BMA members
Info: 443-573-1700 or artbma.org