Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
Interested in buying or selling
In his Skulls series Andy Warhol takes his fascination with death, particularly the deaths of celebrities, a step further, creating a full still life series based on images of a skull on a flat surface, in the tradition of momento mori paintings.
Warhol represented skulls in collages, prints, paintings, drawings, and even in self-portraits. The most recognisable images from this body of work are his still life prints.
These screen prints are based on photographs taken by Warhol’s assistant Robbie Cutrone. The photographs show a skull resting on a flat surface, taken from a slightly raised perspective.
His work also calls into question the concept of the icon, most frequently explored in his representation of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Elizabeth Taylor. However, the concept of the ‘iconic’ is explored on a more symbolic scale in his decision to depict the icon of the skull in an image which illustrates the multiplication of death.
Warhol’s Skulls series has been widely interpreted as an expression of the artist’s desire to evoke the ephemerality of the human condition.
The artist also employs a more painterly aesthetic than in his earlier screen prints with brushstrokes to create surfaces of poetic movement, as exemplified in the expressive marks of Skull 157.
In these earlier portraits, Warhol encapsulated the identity of well-known individuals through the characteristics that make them recognisable and pre-eminent in popular culture. The Skull series subverts this by presenting a subject devoid of any individuality, its repetition both magnifying and desensitising the ubiquitous human condition of mortality.
Some art historians have also linked this motif to the artist’s near-fatal shooting in 1968, suggesting that his Skulls series is a reflection upon this experience and his awareness of the inevitability of death.
Nonetheless, in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol wrote about death stating “I don’t believe in it because you’re not around to know that it’s happened. I can’t say anything about it because I’m not prepared for it.”
As with his iconic Flowers series (1974), Warhol takes a playful approach to the art historical genre of still life painting, the subject of the skull making specific reference to ‘vanitas’ still lifes.
Warhol’s assistant Cutrone once commented that to paint a skull ‘is to paint the portrait of everybody in the world.’ Through his obsessive repetition of the subject throughout his body of work, Warhol both desensitises and amplifies the permeating human condition of mortality.