Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull, 1963, Gelatin silver photo mat print

Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull, 1963, Gelatin silver photo mat print

Portraiture is a persistent theme in all of Warhol’s work; it continually took on various forms that surfaced in his paintings, early films and screenprints. In particular, Warhol’s society portraits of the 1970s revitalized the genre of portraiture by adding an avant-garde spin on an age-old genre. As early as 1963 Warhol collected photo booth strips of his acquaintances. They marked the first instance of Warhol making multiples using a medium that is completely photographic. Socialite Ethel Scull was his first participant to sit and pose in the photo booth, and from one of the many four-strips came Warhol’s first commissioned silkscreen portrait, Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963). For these portraits Warhol used a public photo booth machine to obtain a vertical strip of black and white photographs of his sitter. Notably, the photo booth mechanism—a small room or booth in which a seated poser faces the camera for a predetermined length of time—is remarkably similar to the Screen Test movies set up at the Factory; both devices produced mechanical photographic portraits over time.

In 1971 Warhol began to make commissioned portraits of celebrities, dealers, collectors, and industrialists with his Polaroid Big Shot camera. Former managing editor of Interview Bob Colacello remarked, “His (Warhol) portraits transformed aging socialites into Venus de Milos, and their industrialist husbands into Florentine Davids—or at least, into Hollywood facsimiles thereof…” The Big Shot allowed Warhol instant color images of his sitters; this process involved taking multiple Polaroids, which could develop instantly. Then Warhol would select one picture to transform into a silkscreen that he’d then use to make the painted portrait. Since the portraits are derived from photos, one would assume them to be rather realistic. However, they actually produced less details of a visage than expected. Warhol chose the most informative photograph, usually a full or three-quarter face with the chin up, from which to work. The Polaroids represented the first step in the translation of the subject to the high contrast silkscreen halftones. The Polaroid film itself tended to negate subtle tonal gradations in making generalized areas of color and value contrasts. Warhol employed this photographic process for portraits until his death in 1987.

Andy Warhol, Liz #2, 1963, Silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen

Andy Warhol, Liz #2, 1963, Silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen

In making his portraits, Warhol resorted to a wide range of methods and modes. In his early Pop paintings, he screened multiple heads on a single canvas, but as Warhol progressed he preferred to restrict the canvas to one face per panel. What distinguished Warhol’s portraits from other more established artists were the expressionist colors and the large-scale faces that filled most of the canvas. As a stylist of the human face, Warhol could bestow magnetism upon anyone. Like a plastic surgeon, Warhol removed all imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes and then covered them up with expressionist eyeshadow and exaggerated lips. To Warhol, his sitters were “dimensionless, plastic objects of high style.” (Callie Angell, Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalog Raisonne, 2006). By applying silkscreen inks like cosmetics, Warhol ironically attended to modernist painting’s complexion—its concern with maintaining surface integrity according to art historian Clement Greenberg. In Liz (1963) Warhol’s garish composition tones show Elizabeth Taylor’s transformations from person to public property. Only her public image is revealed, or what art critic John Rublowsky calls her “mask.” Like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had a public mask as well, and more than anything he wanted to become a vital commodity to the American Public.

In 1970 Warhol began painting again and produced his portrait of Hollywood actor Dennis Hopper, measuring 40” x 40”—the standard canvas size for most of the portraits to follow. His portraits were not so much documents of the present as they were icons awaiting a future. In portraiture, uniqueness was sought, yet a person’s face was their brand name; Ethel Scull had to be photographed over thirty times to ensure her own “product recognition.” Warhol systematically infused his themes of the machine and consumer products into portraiture such that people became brands and commercial property. And if Warhol wasn’t currently doing portraits of superstars such as Mick Jagger and Liza Minnelli, he was working hard at developing new ways to become the most celebrated society portraitist of his era.

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