Artists often act as soothsayers, fortune-tellers, harbingers of the future and so it was that Andy Warhol foretold our culture's everyday obsession with celebrity. For we are all now living in the very era prophesied by his mantra: "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes," an ideal embodied by Twitter, You Tube and Facebook. Warhol loved fame, notoriety, every crass aspect of mass media, his life was devoted to a self-professed esthetic of shallowness and surface glamor, his time devoted to tracking the lives of the rich and famous and constantly making art from it all. With his cable TV show, daily diaries, portrait films, endless Polaroid snaps of everyone and anyone, albeit everyone good-looking or well-known, Warhol was the absolute precursor of all social media, indeed that very term in itself might serve as perfect description of his own practice.
Part of the reason why Warhol is so important and expensive today is precisely because he was the first artist to understand, enjoy and exploit contemporary fame, prophesying the way this pervasive visual gossip was going to eventually hijack the mainstream. When Warhol died in 1987, the full madness of our current celebrity mania hardly existed and yet this was exactly Warhol's own taste and intention. In fact, the magazine he had established, Interview, was the most obvious direct parent to all the celebrity publications of today, with their emphasis on the deliberately ephemeral.
For Warhol, as for every artist in history, the portrait was, obviously, central to the whole notion of fame, its representation being the thing in itself. From the era before painting the only antique busts that exist are of the most powerful and famous, whether Caesar or Plato. Likewise, before the arrival of photography it was only the famous or rich who could afford to have a painting of themselves, hence the snobbery of the family portrait, for if one of your ancestors was painted in the 18th century they obviously had to be of a certain status. And it did not take long for certain important portrait photographers to become established, who though relatively more democratic and affordable, were still reserved for the higher echelons of society.
Even in today's culture, fame and its visual embodiment are inseparable. A quick search through Google images is perhaps the postmodern equivalent of a marble head of Socrates. Warhol was fascinated by two things: fame and the 'image'; and the long and complex relationship between the two, throughout history and in his own "age of mechanical reproduction".
The strong relationship between Warhol's iconic portraits and the icons of the Polish Catholic Church, where he spent long hours of his youth, is now well established, the iridescent gold-ground of his Marilyn coming directly from the gold of the Orthodox icons. But Warhol was also influenced by the tabloid image, the rougher and smudgier the better. He played with the different status and resonance of these representations, the slippage between the thing represented and its inky blur, the Byzantine saint and the Daily News front-page sinner.
Warhol was always using images, collecting, collating, cutting them out from the passing media slipstream, but he was also always making images, taking photographs, shooting films, capturing his entourage and his acolytes. His portrait subjects were divided into several distinct categories; those of his close friends, those of attractive acquaintances he found appealing, those of very famous figures he never knew or met, such as Marilyn or Queen Elizabeth II, and the very rich who commissioned him to create their portraits.
There were also as many media and techniques to his portraits as there were varying subjects, including line drawings, 16mm films, videos, Polaroid photographs, formal photographs, paintings, silkscreens, and every other sort of printmaking process, the one often being transmuted or adapted into another.
Warhol took the portrait tradition and transformed it through mass media and mass production, jamming the hierarchies, juxtaposing the rare, the rich and the ordinary. His use of the silkscreen technique meant that all his later 'paintings' could just as well be considered 'prints', and the distinction between which works were made 'by his hand' and by his assistants, by his 'factory', equally ambiguous.
Portraits, of one sort or another, were among Warhol's earliest work, his seventh print in the official catalog raisonné was of Liz Taylor back in 1964 and his last print-portrait was of Queen Elizabeth II, to be offered at Bonhams in July. This is part of a portfolio series punningly entitled 'Reigning' rather than 'Raging' Queens in 1985. These were four different images of four different queens, including Beatrix of the Netherlands, Margrethe of Denmark and, most dramatically, Ntombi of Swaziland. As always with Warhol, his intention is slippery, somewhere between a wink of complicity and a bow of reverence, leaving it uncertain whether he is making images of these queens because he respects them, loves the idea of their regal power, just likes the way they look, or realizes that they'll be snapped up by their loyal subjects.
By contrast, we know well why Warhol's portrait of Kimiko Powers exists; because he knew her and she paid him to create it, part of the long traditional bond of artist-collector commissions. Powers was, as her name deliciously implies, a powerful figure in the world of both traditional Japanese and contemporary art, having assembled major collections in each field. Along with her husband, John Powers, she was one of the earliest and most influential supporters of Pop Art. Warhol was a good friend of the couple and obviously happy to 'immortalize' Kimiko, creating a flattering and instantly elegant image, based on a series of Polaroids and cleverly playing with the contrasts between flesh tones and background, reversing the yellow and pink of her features.
Warhol was, of course, a commercial artist working in design, fashion and advertising for many years before he crossed over into the world of fine art. His importance remains in having blurred the distinctions between the two, transforming a disadvantage to an advantage. And it is in his portraits above all that Warhol combined these two esthetic domains, deploying all his graphic skill, his eye for engaging line and color, his 'creative director' talents to make images that would not only appeal to his immediate clients, but also to absolute strangers in the years to come. For as he put it just before his premature demise, "Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?"
Adrian Dannatt is an art critic and writer.
Julian Schnabel describes how Andy Warhol made his portrait
I made a velvet painting from life of Andy at my studio, it must have taken a few hours and now it hangs at the Hirshhorn Museum. It was really great to be able to paint him and to talk to him properly. So in exchange, Andy offered me either two large Hammer and Sickle paintings or, if I wanted, a portrait of myself instead.
We used a photograph of me standing in a landscape at Amagansett taken by my then wife Jacqueline. Of course, I chose the right image carefully. He created this very large portrait, in fact, I think it's the largest he ever made. It had three panels, maybe nine by seven feet each. It looks a simple image at first, but I have two belts, which create a sort of visual loop, seemingly so simple but in fact with this eternal movement endlessly reaffirming itself
That's always the way with Andy. The image is much more complex than it first appears, you think you get it and then there's much more.
What was so great was the way Andy was so open to suggestions, to ideas. Andy took quite a few pictures of me, including Polaroids. The painting itself is great – it was hanging at my son Vito's house for a long time. There's no life and death in art, you leave your truth in the things you make.