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Andy Warhol's Portrait of Debbie Harry, A Highlight of Sotheby's Contemporary Art Sale
A Sotheby's employee poses with artist Andy Warhol's artwork "Debbie Harry" at Sotheby's. The piece is expected to realise up to £5.5million ($9.1 million) when it comes to auction at Sotheby's on June 29, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.

LONDON.- Selected as the cover image for the major survey of Warhol's portraiture published by Phaidon in 2005, Debbie Harry, from 1980, is one of Warhol's most accomplished portraits of celebrity. One of only four such portraits of the Blondie star in this rare 42 inches format, two of which are in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, this pink version has become one of the best recognized images in Warhol's oeuvre and the definitive portrait of the 1980s style icon. Built up of no fewer than five silk-screened layers of ink over the coloured acrylic ground, this portrait stands head and shoulders above its peers as a masterclass in the genre. Painted at a late high point in Warhol's career, on the eve of the decade which saw a renewed creative enterprise in his art, Debbie Harry sits squarely in the lineage of great portraiture that links his images of the stellar trinity of Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s with his final fright-wig self portraits in the 1980s. Like the early portraits of female stage stars, Debbie Harry reveals Warhol's lifelong fascination with celebrity and beauty; like his final self portraits, it exhibits the sheer perfection of Warhol's flawless silkscreen technique, honed and refined over two decades.

As Carter Ratcliff observes, "Debbie Harry's portrait gives evidence of a more complicated process. One silkscreen lays on the hot pink of coiffure and background. Another coats the lips with a hotter pink, and yet another gives her eyes of blue. Finally, these patches of colour are brought into focus by a ghostly reminiscence of the original Polaroid: a high-contrast image, in black, of the singer's features and flowing hair." (Carter Ratcliff, "Looking Good: Andy Warhol's Utopian Portraiture," in Tony Shafrazi, ed., Andy Warhol Portraits, London, 2007, p.18). With the excellent registration of the silkscreen impression, Warhol juxtaposes Harry's purple eye shadow, dark mascara, red lips, and distinctly strong bone structure against shocking pink hair and like colour background. The full frame composition, the arresting gaze of the subject and the seductive purse of the lips all lend wonderful plasticity to the work and exacerbate the carnality and sensuality of the subject matter.

Warhol's personal celebrity was gained through the popularity of his appropriated images of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy, among others – depicting their public persona with the same cool style as the other consumer products that populated his early canvases. Like the Campbell's Soup Cans, the celebrities were imprinted in our cultural consciousness not as individuals but as marketable icons. When Warhol was still largely painting his canvases by hand, he borrowed subject matter from the front pages of tabloids and newspapers, beginning in 1961. Warhol's second and largest "headline" painting, Daily News (1962), was based on the front and back pages of a March 29, 1962 newspaper, with the front page headline "Eddie Fisher Breaks Down: In Hospital Here, Liz in Rome". For Warhol, tabloid papers served to either communicate events of mass disaster, rendering tragic circumstances almost mundane by their commonplace repetition, or as the purveyors of celebrity and fame to an avid audience. In figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy, Warhol found the ideal subjects that combined both of these aspects of the mass media culture where accessibility turned private tragedy into public myth. As American Pop icons on the international stage, this triumvirate of glamour and tragic loss were the muses in Warhol's great series of 40 by 40 inches silkscreen portraits of 1963-1964.

Warhol continued to be inspired and fascinated by beautiful female celebrities throughout his career. Harry, a striking bottle-blonde haired New Jersey native with an equally effervescent personality, had moved to New York City to launch her music career. She was a waitress at Max's Kansas City, a meeting place for artists and musicians and a favourite hangout for Warhol and his entourage. Warhol and Harry became friends just as her band "Blondie" was becoming successful. She was quickly a staple on the New York social scene and a regular at Studio 54. Blondie, a punk band named for the diva lead singer's nickname, was an immediate huge success. The group launched their debut album in 1976, had their first European tour in 1977 and by 1978 Harry and the band were global superstars. She epitomized the rocket launch rise to fame that infatuated Warhol and in 1979 she graced the cover of his celebrity centred magazine Interview. Her fame, her beauty, and their friendship, made her an instant muse for the artist. Photography and film were the driving force in American life at the time. Warhol understood this and used the mediums to add irresistible drama to his celebrities. Warhol worked from Polaroids, sometimes hundreds, taken over many hours with his sitter. Debbie described her portrait session in a recent interview, "I was thrilled when he wanted to do a portrait of me. It put me in good company with tins of Campbell's Soup, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli. I went to The Factory where he had a team of people working on his art pieces. It was like a school of painters - all these amazing pictures spread out over the floor. Andy shot Polaroids of me for hours then chose the one he liked best. I've got a copy of my finished portrait. It's very precious to me and a great keepsake." (Billy Sloane, "Superstar Debbie Harry is dyeing to return to her rock roots in Scotland," Sunday Mail, March 13, 2011, online edition)

The silkscreen process was ideally suited to Warhol's temperament, as he was seeking to distance himself from the painterly process. Using mechanically printed images derived from photographs, Warhol found an alternative to the traditional hand-painted canvas that combined his graphic talents and his adoption of an ironic, voyeuristic pose in contemporary society. In his choice of subject matter, Warhol appeared as an insightful commentator on our times. The surface of the present work is impeccable: a perfect marriage of the crisp registration one finds in the clean silkscreen that delicately encourages the silhouette forward out of the pictorial space. Only in the most important of Warhol's works do we see the artist so lovingly devoted to the actual mechanics of his craft, and thus to the overall physical properties of the painting itself. The playful meanings one finds between the subject, her status and the way such a colour amplifies the spectra of these meanings are, of course, further enhanced by the outstanding quality of the present work's surface.

This strong chromatic field of pink sets the stage upon which the star herself is realized. By 1980 Warhol's silkscreen technique had been absolutely perfected in the present work there is a wonderful balance between the crisp record of the overall form, together with softer, more subtle areas of screen that shape the shadows around her eyes, cheek and neck. Warhol's mastery of the technique allows him to explore the various nuances available to him within the silkscreen medium in this particular work. By using high contrast Polaroids, Warhol was able to play with the strong areas of black in the features and the bold swaths of colour in the blown out areas. The heightened photographic detail of Debbie Harry links her to Warhol's Marilyn paintings where this method was first explored. A duality exists in the artist's focus on stars and their celebrity as setting them apart, yet by screening and immortalizing their image Warhol seemingly brings them closer to us. Despite how beautiful his women are in life, they all become the more glamorous version of themselves in a Warhol portrait. He repeatedly expressed the utopian idea that everyone is a star, and even with existing stars he was able to catapult them to an elevated level of fame.

Deliberately depicted in a flat, planar manner, Debbie Harry becomes akin to a Byzantine Madonna. There is no inquiry into the psychological or emotional depth of the sitter; rather, Warhol has again produced a "thing in itself", an icon of popular culture, unspoiled by the subjective. In the present work, Debbie, like Warhol's other celebrity women before her, is presented to the viewer as an object to be worshipped. Perhaps intentionally, Warhol chose to only complete four of these 42 by 42 inches silkscreened canvases – perpetuating the enduring allure of the singer and actress. The rarity of the work and the choice of subject matter lend the painting an increasingly mysterious aura that Warhol initially subscribed to his 1960s celebrity images – this work appears to be a metaphorical space for the invisibility of a celebrity's inner person as opposed to the over-exposed visibility of their public image. Debbie Harry is theultimate culmination of Warhol's exploration of our public fascination with female public cultural icons.

In addition to his success in painting, Warhol was a talented filmmaker and was also involved in three different television shows. "Andy Warhol's TV" was a program that aired on the Madison Square Garden Network in the 1980s and often included interviews or appearances with various celebrities. His friend Debbie Harry made frequent appearances on the show, once appearing in a day-glo camouflage head to toe outfit inspired by Warhol's camouflage paintings which she insisted he sign while on her body. In another tv segment, Warhol executed a live demonstration of how to "paint" on an Amiga computer by making a portrait of Harry as she posed for him in the studio. Always on the brink of the next big thing, Warhol was on the cutting edge of understanding digital media's ability to manipulate images and the extraordinary possibilities this could yield. In the portraits of the 1970s and 1980s Warhol began to make adjustments to the images before the silkscreens were produced – a retouching of sorts to enhance the beauty and diminish any minor flaws of his subjects.

Without exception, Warhol's choice of subject was considered and calculated throughout his oeuvre. Warhol's painting remains an essentially modern articulation of structure and form. Portraits, in particular, held central importance in the artist's oeuvre. In the 1950s, portraiture was wholly out of fashion in American art. The Abstract Expressionists of the New York art scene reigned supreme. Warhol single-handedly resurrected the genre in the 1960s. His signature style and his famous subjects both hold their own weight in the portraits, creating a blurred boundary between artist and sitter – the viewer instantly is captivated by both. The artist's most successful portraits were those in which he was turned on by the subject. In this particular canvas, Debbie Harry, a familiar face to the public, has been flattened out by the flashbulb and Warhol has retouched reality by pushing his pictorial facts to an extreme. He does, however, maintain a range of human emotion, and the dialogue between public versus private personality of celebrity is still present. The seductive surface is broken down into bold abstract passages; the un-articulated features are nevertheless seared into our mind's eye with the force of the contrasting positive/negative of his palette. Warhol created his own galaxy of beautiful people and movie stars for the public consumption. The lasting visual power of the optically playful pink in the present work lies in the enigmatic identity of its subject, the bold directness of its surface allure, and its role as a mirror of its time. Debbie Harry truly achieved the iconic symbolic status of popular culture and the present portrait reaffirms both her place and Warhol's place at the apex of celebrity for eternity.

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June 26, 2011

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