Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
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Published shortly before his death in 1987, Camouflage was the last ever print series created by Warhol. The series is testament to Warhol's innovative approach to art throughout his life and career.
Camouflage was originally designed for the military as a mode of disguise. Usually coloured in natural muted tones of green, brown, and grey, traditional camouflage is a long-standing staple in army uniforms. In the case of Warhol's Camouflage series, however, bright and unnatural colours are applied to the recognisable camouflage pattern. Warhol thus unsettled the disguise of camouflage, transforming it into something ironically conspicuous.
Although the series has a distinctly abstract nature, Warhol renounced the pretentious nature of Abstract Expressionism in Camouflage. The Abstract Expressionists upheld the ideals of 'high' art, and believed that art originated in the unconscious mind. For Warhol and his Pop Art comrades, on the other hand, art was indelibly tied to mass media and pop culture. In his subversion of the universally recognisably camouflage pattern, Warhol therefore proved that art is always informed by its context.
Around the same time as his creation of the Camouflage series, Warhol collaborated with fashion designer Stephen Sprouse using the same pattern. The collaboration resulted in a collection of menswear and womenswear, all adorned with Warhol's vibrant camouflage. Ironically, the wearer of these Sprouse garments would become instantly noticeable, sabotaging the original purpose of the pattern.
Allegedly, Warhol was inspired to create his Camouflage series after a conversation with his studio assistant at the time, Jay Shriver. Shiver had been developing a process of painting through a mesh of military fabric. It was reportedly this exchange which offset Warhol's fascination with the camouflage pattern, and perhaps what inspired his unsettling of its original purpose with eye-catching colour.
In his bold and ironic subversion of the original camouflage pattern, Warhol's Camouflage seems to reject its military origins. Though Warhol was famously 'politically neutral', his toying with the camouflage pattern perhaps alludes to his caution around the subject of war and widespread violence.
Whether he was depicting household objects, like Campbell's Soup Cans, or iconic celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol's subject matter was always lifted from mass media. Despite its military ties, Warhol's Camouflage series is no different. No matter what country or background his viewers were from, the print is one which is universally recognisable. Warhol's application of striking colour is typical of his Pop Art approach, and unsettles the original meaning and purpose of the pattern.
From his Joseph Beuys series, Warhol depicted fellow artist Beuys against a colourful camouflage background in his 1987 portrait. This particular portrait was painted after Beuys' death. The camouflage therefore adds a ghostly effect, as though Beuys' head and torso were disappearing into the background. Warhol also depicted himself against a camouflage background, perhaps highlighting the affinity between the pair as two of the most innovative artists of their time.
Since the early 20th century, camouflage has been designed and modernised by artists. Through their mastery over natural tones and forms, artists created a pattern which allowed its military wearer to blend into their environment. However, in the case of Warhol the artist endowed the pattern with Pop, transforming it into an ironic spectacle.
Towards the end of his life, Warhol incorporated the camouflage pattern in his Fright Wig Self-Portraits, almost like a double-exposure. This layer of camouflage alluded to Warhol's celebrity identity, and almost made a mockery of his own thirst for the limelight. Though Warhol's death was unexpected, this late approach to his own portrait has a particular poignance and represents the artist reconciling with his fame.