Andy Warhol



Not on display

Andy Warhol 1928–1987
Acrylic paint and silkscreen on 6 canvases
Support, each: 383 × 483 × 18 mm
frame: 1222 × 1024 × 50 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


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.)

Further reading
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.

Oliver Lurz
February 2012

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Online caption

After he was shot and critically injured in 1968, Warhol became even more obsessed with the theme of death than he had been previously. The skull, a traditional symbol of mortality, is repeated six times, with the impenetrable darkness of the hollow eye sockets echoed in each image. The shadow cast by the skull resembles a baby’s profile, although whether this was intentional is unknown as Warhol did not take the photograph that the screenprint is based on. It seems unlikely, however, that this effective combination of both life and death would escape Warhol’s sharp gaze. In contrast to the sinister subject, the colours are vibrant. Perhaps Warhol is attempting to acknowledge that death is not something to be feared but instead, should be accepted as part of life.


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