If the Gems are a rarely seen example of Warhol’s deadpan celebration of his ‘baser’ obsessions, the commissioned portraits are perhaps the best-known instance of the flagrant mingling of art and commerce that characterised his late work. Warhol tirelessly courted the rich and famous, painting their portraits for a fixed fee and offering a discount if they ordered two. Broadly frowned upon, and never more so than when a selection of these commissioned portraits showed up installed on a chocolate brown wall in his 1979 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warhol’s social climbing became an art form in itself, yielding celebrity subjects that ran the gamut from café society to pop singers and fellow artists, whom he granted the full ‘star treatment’.
The critical establishment saw a further sign of Warhol’s artistic bankruptcy in the recycling of his own signature motifs. The images that made him famous in the 1960s – Marilyn, the Campbell’s Soup cans, his earlier self-portraits – were revisited both in combination and in serial repetition, sometimes revered like photographic negatives. If this tactic of repackaging past work was initially greeted with scepticism, his move feels altogether prescient today in an age when artists wilfully ‘brand’ their signature styles so as to infiltrate the world outside the picture frame, and even make their career manoeuvres the subject of their art.
Self-portraiture as self-promotion, a constant in Warhol’s art, reached a crescendo in his 1978 Self-Portrait wallpaper, and it is fitting that the highly compressed examination of the artist’s late-phase featured in this room is anchored by the artist’s ultimate branding triumph – himself.