On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

countenance is all the more heart-tugging, an enduring and poignant remembrance of family things past. She reminds us of the last thing we expected to think about in Warhol's fashionable Hall of 1970s Fame: that art and life, personal and public history may overlap, but, in the end, are very different things.


ANDY WARHOL: PORTRAIT OF THE 80S A POSTSCRIPT 1993

The magic of numbers would give every decade its period stamp, a rule proved by the above essay. Completed at the very end of the 1970s, in time for the opening, on November 20, 1979, of the Whitney Museum's "Andy Warhol: Portraits of the 70s" show, it was meant to wrap up a distinct phase in the artist's career as a portraitist, mirroring what seemed, after the 1960s, a clear change in style, sitter, and finances, whether viewed as art or as social history. Who could have guessed then what Warhol's portraits of the 1980s might look like, and who would have dreamed that for him, the eighties would come to an abrupt conclusion on February 22, 1987, when a ridiculous hospital botch took his life?

Now, in 1993, on the occasion of this new and, alas, posthumous publication, I want to add a few thoughts about what turned out sadly to be the final seven years of Warhol's portraiture. Was it only the seventies extended or were there also some new winds blowing? To be sure, his roster of celebrities--rock stars, glamour-pusses, jet-setting artists, even royalty-- went on soaring to ever loftier international heights, mirroring, as was always the case with Warhol, the rich, the famous, and the universally popular and creating a silkscreened version of People Magazine. As before, the flashbulb images of superstar sex goddesses of every stripe, from motherly ( Dolly Parton) to femme fatale ( Joan Collins, Grace Jones), were distilled to satiric, artificial essences, leaving us awash in a kissing-distance sea of fake hair, lipstick, mascara. And with his unerring sense of social pecking order, Warhol even got to the ultimate top, meeting the most daunting of court-portraitist challenges--PrinceCharles and Princess Diana--by keeping us at a humble, ground-hugging distance as we look way, way up past the royal jewels, the gilt, the venerable insignia in order to catch a glimpse of indifferent gazes leveled at aristocratic attitudes far above our heads. (Here, Warhol seems to have learned quite a few useful tricks from the fine copies of Allan Ramsay's coronation portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte that he bought in 1978.) And speaking of dynasties and history, the growing retrospection of the 1980s also cast its rear-view shadows on Warhol's portraiture, with many resurrections of the faces of the dead and the great added to the icons of those who were famous for only fifteen minutes. His new inventory included, among many others, Lenin, Hermann Hesse, the series Ten Portraits of Jews in the 20th Century (ranging from Freud to Groucho Marx), and even went back to towering giants born too early for the age of photography, such as Beethoven and Goethe, whose likeness Warhol had to reincarnate not from a Polaroid but from the German painter Wilhelm Tischbein's textbook portrait of the writer.

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