Andy Warhol: The Other Side of the Mirror
By Tiago Mesquita
Art critic and teacher
Andy Warhol produced a vast number of self-portraits throughout his career. One of the oldest records is a simple drawing from 1942. Later on, he replicated his own photos on his canvases, invented himself in features for cinema, multiplied his own image in Polaroid photos and in video images. He also worked hard on creating a character of himself that blends with the figure of the cultural industry and later on became a celebrity on TV, in gossip magazines and social columns.
An important part of his work was creating this persona. He’d appear wearing a wig with skin full of makeup, using made-up phrases, affected gestures and biting humor. Nothing seemed spontaneous and natural. The artist on the canvas and in life made everything to look like a projection of himself. In fact, he admired the capacity of drag queens to re-create gestures attributed to the opposite gender. He was interested in this reinvention of identity and, more than that, the annulment of any subjectivity.
Behind all these representations, the man in flesh and blood disappears. We now deal with projections that overlap one another. All we see is a smooth, graphic, brilliant and shiny surface. In an interview to Gretchen Berg, in 1967, the artist said: “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”.
The portrait for Warhol is not a space where you unveil a personality, but rather the place where you project an image. It’s the re-creation of what he called “half-dimension”. A mediatic and marketing projection of this persona.
An image culture had disseminated itself at that time. This imagination would become the source for future generations. Distant places around the world, previously not accessible, appeared in movies and on TV. People began following stories built around the life, loves and misfortunes of celebrities. The life of music, movie, television and sports stars began being narrated beyond screens, in magazines. The image re-created a reflex of the world. Even though partial, it affected multitudes.
Given this new reality, Warhol tries to think of a new meaning for art and a new role for artists. Cult arts seem to inhabit the same fetish creation and entertainment circle and the artist in the work of Warhol is also a mystifier, someone who creates a mediatic and marketing image of oneself. It’s the way how this image is created, the fragility of its beauty and of its promise that interests the artist.
In 1964, Andy Warhol transfers photos of his face to canvases. In this period, the artist begins to utilize photos produced in his studio in paintings, having abandoned traditional painting techniques just a while before. He experimented graphic procedures like stencil, stamps, stickers until deciding for serigraphy. The technique allowed to print a photo on silkscreen and multiply it in series. The image came across as impersonal and seemed to have been done in a mechanical way.
The work is methodical, repetitive and intends to eliminate any traces of “personal style”. When using another person’s image, Warhol purchases the rights to the photo, rephotographs it and prints it on a silkscreen. From there, he transfers the figures serially, on different surfaces already covered with bright colors. The images are repeated like products displayed on a shelf. At times, they are juxtaposed, overlapped or presented in less regular arrangements. The colors not always match the contours of the figures and seem to lack definition.
In the same way that he used to pile boxes, cans, dollars, objects, he begins to pile celebrities like Troy Donahue, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Elvis Presley. The artist – or his assistants – not always use the same ink load to print the figures over this background, therefore, at times they appear clearer, while in others more erased or blurred. The effigies repeat uninterruptedly on the colored canvas. It’s as if they appear and disappear, suggesting an oscillating presence of characters.
Photos of people or recognizable events are printed on the paintings. Events that people come into contact not through direct experience, but through the mediatic representations made in them. The artist deep dives into this system of sad idolatry, in which characters only exist as images. Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage crises are known by the photos and gossip. The same can be said about Elvis Presley’s problems with amphetamines, and the beauty, the glory and the death of Marilyn Monroe. Tragedies, commotions and intrigues, everything is revealed to us by these half figures. We think we know them through media representations.
A lot of what Warhol thinks of images comes from this type of rehearsed relationship of the character in the image. It’s the conversion of events, of characters, of objects in this “half-dimension”. In it, the picture is not an exact image of the portrayed, but at the same time it is. It appears as a fleshless and artificial image of whoever.
When he decides to create self-portraits, Warhol thinks about inserting his persona in this system of images. When the figure decides to abandon the flesh and become an idol. More than that, Warhol tries to act as if intervening and reflecting on the dissemination and production mode of this culture in large US urban centers.
In addition to creating a system for becoming a star, creating his own photos, making his movies and producing other artists, he also transforms his own image in a stellar figure. This passes through the self-portraits and forging of a self-image.
My first self-portraits follow schematic posing models and impersonal photography forms. Warhol poses in those 3×4 photo booths and uses these instant photos as the motif of paintings. He seeks to work with images he doesn’t control. Therefore, he doesn’t deal with the click. They are images where he tries to rehearse an idea of photographic beauty. His skin is redone in a smooth texture, with acrylic paint, but the body, even though it’s painted in unnatural colors, does not seem to fully match with what’s rehearsed.
That’s why, in one of his best self-portraits, he seems to be hiding his face. In a series he painted between 1966 and 1967, Warhol prints a close-up image several times in which he appears with half his head shaded and with a hand under his chin and two fingers covering his mouth.
In his best works, he paints the background in one color, the part of the face that appears in another, and the shaded part of his face, the hair, and a stripe on the left margin in a third color. It’s this color that designs Warhol’s eyes, nose and mouth. As such, what’s left of his face is the projection of a shade. We only identify the artist by this delicate shade, in high contrast with the colored paint in the background.
At this moment, the artist tries to create an interesting and mysterious image not of Andy Warhol the man, but the myth. Of this easily recognizable figure. However, the face seems failed, incomplete, erased. The character he was is no longer there and the one he wanted to be was never completed. The artist paints this character countless times without the image ever attaching perfectly. In trying to convert into a “photographic beauty” made of light and make up, he shows that this promise is fake, a fragile fantasy.
In portraying himself in Polaroids, the artist shows the possibility of other lives, of pretending to be what he never was, but this dream is a fake fantasy. The happiness fades quickly. Once the photo is developed, the artist would go to the sink and all promises would go away with the water. They are joys that not always remediate the pain and suffering of life, they only promise a passing euphoria.
In Warhol’s resigned aesthetic, life promises little. It may have the luck to eat the same meal every day, be invited to a party, listen to a song that brings back memories on the radio, become famous and adored like an idol – even if the idol does not become totally confused with the person. And, even if the promises of diamonds, fur coats and champagne are fulfilled, the next day is an interminable hangover.
Published at the first edition of SP-Arte Magazine, on April 2018.