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22: ANDY WARHOL, Vesuvius, 1985
Vesuvius, 1985. Signed and dated “Andy Warhol 85” on the overlap. Stamped by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board and numbered "A100.111" on the overlap. acrylic on canvas 27 3/4 x 32 1/4 in. (70.5 x 81.9 cm)
PROVENANCE Lucio Amelio, Naples
EXHIBITED Naples, Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici di Napoli, Fondazione Amelio-Istituto per l'Arte Contemporanea, Museo di Capodimonte, Vesuvius by Warhol, July 18 – October 31, 1985
LITERATURE A. Warhol, Vesuvius, Naples, 1985, p. 50
Realized for a solo exhibition in the prestigious Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, a sacred space typically reserved for the old masters and classical Italianate landscapes, Andy Warhol produced his Vesuvius Cycle, a series of 18 canvases depicting the activity of the world famous Neapolitan volcano erupting. This work cannot help but engage with both world history and art history. In contrast to the impressionist treatment of this same subject, here Warhol translates the image into a stylized sign. Reinterpreting tradition, Warhol manipulates and inflects this Neapolitan and Romantic motif with his bravura line and overtly contemporary lexicon. Vesuvius simultaneously enshrines in an energetic and dynamic composition the essential, unconquerable force of this most iconic Neapolitan landmark, the great passion of the city that thrives beneath it, and the passionate personality of the foremost Neapolitan dealer of his time and close friend of the artist who commissioned the series, Lucio Amelio. Four years prior, Amelio had commissioned works from a group of artists including Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Keith Haring for an exhibition entitled Terrae Motus, a plea for art against the destruction of nature. This show was planned in reaction to the earthquake that occurred in November 1980 just south of Naples, which claimed the lives of over 2,700 people and devastated the surrounding area. Terrae Motus not only placed Naples firmly on the Contemporary Art world map, but also made a lasting impression on Warhol, from his experience of the city and his encounter with Beuys. In Vesuvius, 1985, Warhol recalls the sense of disaster that described the earlier exhibition and invokes the icon of natural beauty and threat of destruction that renders Naples, an extraordinary and unique place, as his subject. “An eruption is an overwhelming image, an extraordinary happening and even a great piece of sculpture” (Andy Warhol in Vesuvius by Warhol, Naples, 1985, p. 35). Executed towards the end of the artist’s career, this series also bears witness to Warhol’s departure from the screen-printing process for which he became famous in the 1960s and his return to hand painting. Here, after some twenty years, Warhol’s expressive and spontaneous touch can be seen. Warhol himself explained that he painted Vesuvius by hand and always used different colors so that they consistently give the impression of having been painted just minutes after the eruption. Interestingly, this practice of employing expressionistic brushwork over a flat, silk-screened ground, is “an inversion of the technique used in earlier series, such as the Reversals and Ladies and Gentlemen, where Warhol had applied the flat, democratizing surface of the silkscreen over the brushy, drippy background. Through this exceptionally rare technique, the power of this image is instantly felt.” (Vesuvius by Warhol, Naples, 1985, p. 35). Throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, two overarching themes emerge: the legacy of art history and the omnipotence of death. The present work is significant in its incorporation of both. On the one hand an image of life affirming vitality, Vesuvius, 1985, with its creeping threat of impending precariousness and destructive catastrophe, is simultaneously laced with the theme of tragedy and morbidity that permeates Warhol’s entire oeuvre, revisiting the haunting contemplation of death so sensationally depicted in the Suicides, Disasters, Car Crashes and Electric Chairs from the early 1960s. Warhol was fascinated with images of violence and morbidity for much of the decade. The sources for these canvases were found in movies, magazines, and cheap tabloids which notoriously sensationalized tragedy. Some images were provided by friends who had access to police photographs, too brutal to have ever intentionally been made public. The source image for Silver Car Crash, 1963, is an unidentified newspaper photograph, which shows a convertible nearly split in half, with a lifeless figure spilling out of the passenger side door. The disturbing image of a mangled body and vehicle is represented through the stark and unforgiving lens of Warhol’s screen-printing process. The image repeated ten times across the picture plane at first shocks in its irreverence, but eventually the horror is subdued by the repetition. The images, some have argued, reflect Warhol’s own fear and obsession with death. Yet his process of replicating the image across a monochromatic canvas desensitizes the viewer to the tragedy. “The Disasters constitute a key moment in [Warhol’s] work. Suddenly the sassy young man, who had burst on the scene with images of Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola, dollar bills, and movie stars, was turning his attention to the death-obsessed underbelly of American life. These paintings must have been a tremendous shock when they first appeared, revealing that Pop Art was much more than an ironic joke for Warhol. With the Disasters, Warhol succeeded in separating himself from the other Pop artists, who, for the most part, continued to occupy themselves with the mechanics of mass-market image-making. He defined himself as an artist operating on a truly ambitious stage, willing to take on the big issues of human existence -mortality, the randomness of life and death, and the impersonal cruelty of state power. By so doing, he created a link for himself to not only the pessimistic humanism of Goya and Picasso, but, more importantly, to Abstract Expressionism and its existential and metaphysical concerns -concerns which had been mostly abandoned by the artists of the 60s.” (P. Halley, “Fifteen Little Electric Chairs,” Andy Warhol Little Electric Chair Paintings, exh. cat., Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 40). This obsession with death is precisely what made his famous portraits of Marilyn, Elvis and Jackie, all of whom were made subjects of Warhol’s paintings in the wake of their own personal tragedies. The volcano itself has become an icon, like the aforementioned subjects, but unlike them, Vesuvius, 1985, remains vibrantly active, still alive. And what separates Vesuvius, 1985, most clearly from the Disaster paintings, is its existence as a natural disaster, and not one of human error. Conferring on the past a rejuvenated pertinence to the present, Vesuvius, 1985, can be seen in the greater context of Warhol’s other appropriations from his Art After Art series, including his Mona Lisa works and The Scream (after Edvard Munch), reiterating and reaffirming his essential position within art history. Warhol, like the eruption itself, was an overwhelming and extraordinary artist who forever changed the landscape of art history.
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