Skulls comprises six canvases, which are displayed together in a vertical grid of three rows of two. Each panel reproduces the same photographic image of a human skull resting on a flat surface and seen from a slightly raised point of view. The black and white photograph on which Skulls is based was taken by Ronnie Cutrone, then one of Warhol’s assistants. Cutrone positioned the skull on a trestle table, resting it on a piece of plywood covered in white paper in front of a blank studio wall. Warhol instructed him to take several photographs while changing the position of the light source in order to cast a variety of dramatic shadows. According to Vincent Fremont, who worked with Warhol in various roles from 1969, Warhol was very interested in the shapes of these shadows and was delighted with the image used here (Freymont and Groys 2006, p. 90). The forehead and cheekbone stand out brightly while the eye sockets and other recesses are in deep shadow.
Skulls was made in Warhol’s New York studio, known as the Factory, on unstretched canvas that had been rolled out flat on the studio floor. Although he had a large number of staff working for him, during the period when this work was made Warhol also employed an assistant named Rupert Smith to help specifically with screen-printing. Synthetic polymer paint, a fast drying alternative to oil paint, was used as the background onto which the image of the skull was screen-printed.
The vivacity of the red, yellow, blue, and purple colours used here is at odds with their macabre subject matter. Some art historians have linked Warhol’s repeated use of the skull as a motif in his work of this period to the artist’s near-fatal shooting in 1968. Others have suggested that Warhol’s interest in the skull as a motif stemmed from his desire to evoke the human condition (Cutrone once commented that to paint a skull ‘is to paint the portrait of everybody in the world’, quoted in Foster 2001, p.79.) However, in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), Warhol wrote about death: ‘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.’ (Warhol 1977, p.162.)
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York 1977.
Hal Foster, ‘Death in America’, in Annette Michelson (ed.), October Files: Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2001, pp.69–91.
Vincent Fremont and Boris Groys (ed.), Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2006, pp.90–2.