Andy Warhol: Late Self-Portraits is one of the smallest exhibitions I’ve seen recently. Being generous, it extends over two rooms of Sheffield’s Graves Gallery, but one of those rooms is in fact devoted to pictures of, and interviews with, people who knew Warhol. Nevertheless, the one room of self-portraits – paintings and photographs from the last ten years of Warhol’s life – offers both a fascinating insight into Warhol and a reminder of how prescient he was, not only in predicting today’s celebrity culture, but in seeing the emptiness beneath the glossy surface.
The room is dominated by a 1986 self-portrait, a red and black silkscreen of Warhol in a fright wig. At first sight, the red head appears to hang in a black void, as if Warhol were insisting on the primacy of his own image, converting it into a Pop Art totem. On closer inspection, the black space is in fact slashed through by stray wisps of hair that stick up. The top of the painting ends where the hairs end, just as its bottom ends below the chin. The black void we first see is then revealed to be claustrophobic, a box that allows no movement beyond the limits of the self. Whether the painting is a metaphor of the limits of the aging body or of the crushing confines of fame, once we realise the limits of the frame, Warhol’s image becomes more haunted than narcissistic, the coolly starting eyes presenting a challenge to the viewer to consider their own part in a culture that constantly demands objects for its communal gaze to consume.
Similar themes of mortality and fame are touched on in several of the other works. There are, for example, two versions of Self-Portrait Strangulation, where a picture of Warhol with someone’s hands around his neck is reproduced over and over, but the constant repetition never solves the picture’s central mystery: is his twisted expression the result of an assassination attempt by a crazed admirer, or just Andy goofing off for the cameras? In another self-portrait, again in red and black, we see a three-quarter portrait of Warhol inhabiting the familiarly cool guise that was his trademark. But when we look closer at what at first appears just another moment of self-publicity, we see a skull creeping in from the surrounding blackness, apparently gnawing into his shoulder.
The skull motif reappears in what seems the boldest inclusion in an exhibition of self-portraits: Skulls, a 1986 silkscreen that treats a skull to the familiar Warhol treatment of the same image repeated over and over, distinguished only by changes of colours and different levels of deterioration. Whether the skull is supposed to represent Warhol or not, by giving it the same treatment as icons such as Monroe or Jackie Kennedy, he shows us what Eliot calls ‘the skull beneath the skin’, the mortality that no amount of plastic surgery or photo airbrushing can ever remove. It may not be a self-portrait of Warhol’s actual skull, but it is a self-portrait of his and everyone else’s future. And in the intimacy of a small gallery where paintings can be viewed close and without a press of tourists at one’s elbow, what this work also reveals is the subtle interplay in Warhol between the expected and the unexpected: the identical images that never quite give our eye what we think we’ll encounter, defeating our expectations with a thick smear of paint that disrupts the otherwise smooth surface, or with a marked deterioration of the copied image, or with the unnatural glow of lime green acrylic against the white of the skull.
Perhaps the most intimate works here though are the small self-portrait photographs in a cabinet at the centre of the room. Some of them are familiar from reproductions as silkscreen images, but others, you feel, are ones Warhol made less for public consumption than as reminders of his own mortality. This, it seems to me, is Warhol confronting his end. His face in these photos is drawn and deathly pale, the look towards the camera stripped both of affection and affectation. Even in the images where he’s donned a transvestite’s wig and smeared his face with make-up, the decay and self-knowledge are obvious. After all the years of fame, he’s reduced to a lonely, ruined diva whichever guise he adopts.
Showing in an adjacent room, a selection of prints from Eduardo Paolozzi’s Moonstrips Empire News gives a different perspective on Pop Art. Paolozzi’s Pop Art was always more political than that of his American counterparts, sceptical towards the huge embrace of American culture by Britain, and Moonstrips Empire News makes that scepticism explicit. He identifies in his introduction that London was most vulnerable to media bombardment because, unlike the US, Britain had no reality against which to compare the images favoured by American advertisers and filmmakers.
The end result, as selected here, is variable in quality, ranging from abstract patterns that look like they’ve slipped off psychedelic wallpaper to razor-sharp juxtapositions of Disney and missiles. However, it offers an interesting contrast to Warhol, and does provide some insight into the techno anxiety that the American mass media provoked. It’s no surprise to discover that Paolozzi was close friends with J. G. Ballard, as they were both equally prophetic of our own age’s submission to mass media and advertising, and shared a similar unease about the fusion of technology and everyday life.
In this Olympic year, when the Tate has chosen Damien Hirst to represent British Art, I wonder if Paolozzi wouldn’t have been a more interesting and challenging choice. He’s certainly long overdue a major retrospective, though I doubt he’ll get one soon: more likely, unfortunately, is that the intricate Paolozzi murals that decorate Tottenham Court Road tube will be covered over by advertising space, one more stage in the steady transformation of the world around us into a space whose only purpose is to sell. Were he still alive, I’m sure Paolozzi would have seen the irony. As Moonstrips Empire News makes clear, even in 1967, he saw it coming.