Late Andy Warhol: Death-Obsessed Celebrity Portraitist

07/07/2010 4:00 AM |

On Season 1, Episode 9 of Andy Warhol's TV (1981), Warhol interviews Larry Rivers, hamming it up for the camera as Rivers stutters, sputters, and paces around his studio like a caged animal. At the end of Rivers' monologue about a recently deceased benefactor, Warhol exclaims in dulcet tones, "He died? But he was so rich!"

During the late seventies and into the eighties, Warhol solidified his reputation as a hanger-on and society portraitist, a toady to the American glitterati. Unbeknownst to many critics, however, Warhol was also privately experimenting with abstraction, form, and color in his artwork at the time. The new exhibition Andy Warhol: The Last Decade at the Brooklyn Museum (through September 12) presents the elusive artist as he confronts his twilight years.

The exhibition spans from 1978, when Warhol turns fifty, to his death in February 1987. Joseph Ketner II, the curator of the exhibition, says, "Part of what I've come to realize and I propose here is that somewhere around 1978—at this key moment—he begins to change." He continues, "[Warhol] still keeps up all of this persona; he becomes a model, he begins [a] television [show], he continues doing portraits, he still hangs out at the nightclubs, but he also goes back into the studio to paint, specifically to reinvent the process of painting."

An aging Warhol thus begins to turn his gaze inward, confront his own mortality, and allow himself to try out different mediums, with varying degrees of success. "Eggs" (1982) and "Yarn" (1983) are forgettable silkscreen works, but his macabre self-portraits remain haunting. In the red and grey diptych, "Self-portrait with Skull" (1978), all the detail in the screen print is washed out, like in a close-up Polaroid photo. Warhol becomes a specter—all eyes, mouth, and a thin outline of a nose, with his signature fright wig stuck in place. Through the series of self-portraits, the artist becomes the celebrity subject, silk screened on multiple canvases in lurid colors.

Also featured are Warhol's collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente; these pieces also confront mortality, but the influence of his youthful partners gives some levity to the morbid subject matter. "Untitled (Heart Attack)" (1984) is an irreverent piece with bold colors and designs that balance the disturbing reference to Jean Harris' 1980 murder of her former lover, cardiologist Herman Tarnower.

However, the large-scale presentation of "The Last Supper" (1986) is the exhibition's curatorial masterstroke. The double image contains visible screen print marks—like a photocopy of the original, but in faded piss yellow. Instead of a homage to Da Vinci, it's an audacious attempt at tackling immortality by an artist in his final years.

Despite his fixation on Catholic iconography and death in many of these pieces, Warhol's stars are still very much a part of the exhibition. In the back room of the first floor, enlarged Polaroid photos of celebrities line the walls. In the corner right, a comical 1977 photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger posing shirtless is signed, "To my friend Andy," while washed-out images of Truman Capote and Dennis Hopper are not far off.

A middle room presents the screening of a Warhol-produced interview between Diana Vreeland, the former editor of Vogue, and Henry Geldzahler, the venerable art critic and curator. Vreeland lounges on a multi-colored settee with a rotund Geldzahler and asks him questions in her clenched-jawed drawl. She delivers bon mots like "Water is God's tranquilizer" and then launches into the wonders of the newfangled sport known as "skateboarding." Vreeland says, "Skateboards, I think, are great." She then immediately barks, "Great!" Geldzahler agrees, saying, "They do amazing tricks." Perhaps coincidentally, the Brooklyn Museum is offering skateboard decks at the gift shop for $58.95; the Velvet Underground's banana, a Campbell's soup can, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the classic Marilyn Monroe model are all for sale. Would Warhol be amused by this crass attempt to market his work to twelve-year-olds? Probably.

In Warhol's final interview, Paul Taylor asks the faux-naïf, "What about your transformation from being a commercial artist to a real artist?" Warhol replies, "I'm still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist."

(Images courtesy the Andy Warhol Foundation)