Staring death in the face

Warhol's self-portraits and skull paintings reveal his obsession with death.

In 1968 Andy Warhol was shot. He almost died. Death had long been a central theme of his works and now its reality became appallingly apparent. It would be, however, another eight years before he began making works that feed directly off that experience, the skulls and late self- portraits, currently on view in London.

Warhol, famously, wanted the artist "to be a machine", and in the skull paintings, made between 1976 and 1978, he used the silk-screen processes by which he had parodied the mass media to portray traditional subject matter with a historical reading back to the Leyden School of 17th-century Holland, whose painters specialised in such allegorical memento mori of the transience of human life. "Look," says Warhol, in the best Old Master tradition, "this is all we come to." Yet Warhol's knowing vanitas paintings are both a sardonic intimation of his own mortality and a requiem for another death - the end of magic in art. Warhol's success had seemed to signal the demise of the artist as shaman. In his hands, art was no longer the refuge and solace it had been for the Abstract Expressionists, but a reflection of the banality of the everyday. In his early multiples, Warhol had located art firmly in earthly terms, and the skull is perhaps the ultimate indication of this impetus - a decisive negation of the life everlasting.

Before his shooting, Warhol had faith in his own immortality common to all self-invented cult figures. From 1963 the stench of death pervades such works as Blue Electric Chair and the silk-screens of plane crashes, suicides and automobile accidents. Images such as these had struck a chord with an already desensitised society, keen to observe death but reluctant to become involved. Now, choosing to portray the skulls, Warhol betrayed the conscience of a man at last in touch with his own mortality. In an ironic twist, though, he found that he was unable to take himself seriously. In a nothing less than hilarious coda to his own oeuvre, Warhol, in effect, demonstrates that you can buy everything - even death itself. And it's so beautifully packaged. Then, having shown the skull alone, Warhol uses a livid blood-red ground to depict himself with it on his shoulder and then on his head. Warhol as Prince of Denmark, though, is a weird, Pythonesque notion, and this desperate attempt to reinstate gravitas into his work again backfires. The artist is unable to escape a satire of his own making. "If I'd gone ahead and died 10 years ago," he said despairingly in 1980, "I'd probably be a cult figure today."

This show is all about loss. Warhol seems to be expressing an impossible longing to recover the art he has himself so irredeemably destroyed. In his work he had recorded the demise of Sixties optimism and spent a decade in painting the celebrities of Tinseltown. The ultimate celebrity though was death, and now Warhol settled down to record his own passing. But Warhol was never at one with his personality.

He had declared himself "obsessed with the idea of looking in the mirror and seeing no one, nothing", and the face that looks down from these late self-portraits is variously a mask of petulance, arrogance, fury and surprise. It is by turn the face of an oracle, a sibyl and the guru as which he had reinvented himself - a Christ for the post-pop world. But never is it human. The nearest it comes to that is in the ironically titled Self- Portrait (flesh) of 1986, a clueless and imploring portrayal of hollow- cheeked, silver-wigged sadness. A year after painting it, Warhol was dead.

n 'Vanitas: Skulls and Self- portraits 1976-1986', to 27 Jan, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 21, 24 Derring Street, London (0171-499 4100)

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