Jackie Wullschlager offers an astute reading of the Warhol portrait show at the Grand Palais in Paris. Reminding us that these works were hooted down by critics the only time they were shown together in the late 1970s, she traces the evolution of the silk-screen portraits from the death and disaster Marilyns and Jackies to the “pop-the-question” portraits Warhol used to generate cash and manipulate society:
A first commission followed immediately: from collector Robert Scull, for a portrait of his wife Ethel, who, designer-dressed, expected to trip off to Richard Avedon’s studio to be photographed for the silkscreen. Instead, Warhol, jangling $100-worth of coins, pushed her into a Photomat machine with instructions to “watch the little red light”. Warhol poked, joked, jostled Ethel into hundreds of dynamic poses, then chose those with the strongest light/dark contrasts, to make “Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times”. It was, said Metropolitan curator Henry Geldzahler, “the most successful portrait of the 1960s. It was a new kind of look at a single human being from 36 different points of view, obviously influenced by the cinema and television. He was creating an image of a superstar out of a woman who could have been any one of a series of women.” [ . . . ]
Warhol’s women are usually more interesting than his men. “He admired women. He wanted to be one. He wanted to be involved in their creation,” suggested Geldzahler. Among political portraits, the greatest are the 16-panel mourning canvas “Jackie”, based on newspaper shots taken hours after Kennedy’s assassination, painted in the blues and greys of civil war America, and the spectacular, shifting, Technicolor images of Mao, imbued with sexual ambiguity and a sinister play on the link between eroticism and power.
Understanding this relationship lay at the root of Warhol’s voyeuristic genius. “He cringed from physical contact. It was that celibacy that gave him enormous manipulative power over the magnificently beautiful people he brought together,” recalled his Factory friend Gerard Malanga. Detachment, the aestheticising stare of the ascetic as well as the dandy, determined the neutrality with which Warhol fixed the materialistic, spiritually bankrupt mood of western late capitalism, co-opting even Mao into his vision of psychedelic emptiness.
Andy Warhol’s Paintings at the Grand Palais (Financial Times)