‘He was always such a strong, strong man/ I saw him go to pieces/ I saw him go to pieces’
‘Pieces of a Man’—Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 hymn to his disenfranchised father could well have been penned after wandering the rooms housing this remarkably complete collection of Warhol’s self portraits. Following a trajectory of gauche vulgarity, enthusiasm and playfulness through a tunnel of darkness into vanity and morbidity, his portraits move to a final reduction of form that, like the man himself in his later years, is almost translucent. At his best and worst Warhol was gifted and truly godless in his experimentation and this superb exhibition runs the gamut of the pope of pop art’s (self) reflections and creativity.
Opening with Warhol’s early childish but oddly effective graphite on paper sketches, his influence on future artists, even as a boy, can be identified in a drawing of Clint Hamilton, Nathan Gluck and himself (nicely stained with what looks like coffee). This graphite and coloured pencil sketch on Strathmore paper can now be seen as the reference point for a composition to which fellow artists David Hockney and Dennis Hopper (as photographer) frequently returned.
What follows next serves to illustrate what a funny, silly and joyful artist Warhol could be. His youthful visage bursts out of blue, pink and yellow acrylic screen prints: in some he looks like the Jackal, in others like blonde bewigged Tadzio from Death in Venice . These portraits, so prescient in our cultural iconography, in reality look compulsively frail. Riven with watermarks they seem to deteriorate before our eyes. Warhol and his hero (of the time) Jean Cocteau would surely have wanted for little else.
Though the curators have tried to mix things a little, the rooms which cross and encircle the gallery mostly promote Warhol the artist post- 1968, when he took a few bullets from Valerie Solanis. This is darker, more bewildered work: the saints, strangulation, skulls and burnt-out hues of turquoise, peach and berry come to the fore. By the 1980s, however, Warhol had discovered Basquait, Grace Jones, collage, curtis rag paper, camouflage and pineapple wigs—and the fog of his decline seems temporarily lifted. In the last two galleries we see Warhol enter a final Ozymandias-like madness: stage blues, golds, silvers and suedes bolster the man’s emaciated mask, cream covered and bewigged, while the last group of photographs show a skeleton in drag—alive, camp, opaque but a whisper-thin thread away from the end.
The final irony of this beautifully curated show is that on leaving one is forced to pass the SNGMA’s newly acquired ‘The Last Supper’ by Damien Hurst, a series of huge pop arty medicine packs. You would like to think Warhol might have giggled when he saw this, before charcoaling himself into the corner of another piece of HMP paper.
Paul Dale is film editor of The List