Andy Warhol’s screen print, Skulls (F. & S. II.159) is one of four screen prints that make up his Skulls series from 1976. Based on a photograph taken by Warhol’s assistant Robbie Cutrone, the print was produced by layering bright blocks of colour over a hand-drawn sketch of a human skull. This print is distinct in that it represents a departure from Warhol’s photographic style that he is famed for, instead turning to sketchy, organic lines and blocks of flat colour to explore tensions between realism and abstraction.
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. Vanitas paintings in history were a reminder of human mortality and the fragility of life, and this deathly subject matter marks a shift in Warhol’s work, often linked to Warhol’s near-fatal shooting in 1968.
The exuberance of the pink, red, yellow and blue blocks of colour are at odds with the grave subject matter, giving the print an unsettling but striking character. In contrast to his earlier photographic portraits of famous individuals, the Skulls Series overthrows this by showing a subject devoid of any individuality. Of this, his assistant Cutrone once commented that to painting 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.