In the mid-1970s, shadows increasingly began to haunt Andy Warhol. In the Still Life drawing series of 1975 and the Hammer and Sickle series of 1977 (also titled Still Life), they assume an idiosyncratic, almost independent existence as compositional elements; in the Skulls of 1976, they become more expressive and fanciful in character. Finally, in 1978–79, in a brief but concentrated foray, Warhol confronted shadows as a subject in their own right. The result was an exceptional series of paintings, notably one vast environmental work in 102 parts, together with sundry others in different formats and with different motifs.
The precise sources for these enigmatic images remain contested. Notwithstanding the artist's own lapidary description of their genesis in "a photo of a shadow in my studio," alternate and conflicting accounts of their origins have been offered, among which the most persuasive is that given by Warhol's studio assistant at the time, Ronnie Cutrone, who remembers Warhol asking him to take photographs of shadows generated by maquettes devised expressly to create abstract forms.1
Of the seven or eight different compositions in the series, Warhol used two extensively, the remainder very seldom. Only the preferred pair are employed in Dia's environmental work Shadows. With two silver exceptions, the tall, narrow form dubbed "the peak" always appears as a black positive on a colored ground. These grounds, which range in hue from a Day-Glo acid green to a majestic purple, from a lurid turquoise to a sober brown, are mostly treated as a flat matte surface. Occasionally, however, they are broadly handled so that bravura brushwork irregularly fills the canvas, creating a lively field onto which the motif is then silkscreened. The second form, known as "the cap," is shorter and more organic in form, and always appears, paradoxically, as a negative in a black milieu: an "absent" shadow. Also monochromatic, these panels partake of the same palette as their counterparts.
Purchased as a single entity by Lone Star Foundation (now the Dia Art Foundation), this cycle of paintings was first exhibited in January 1979, at 393 West Broadway in New York City.2 Its current presentation in Dia:Beacon mimics that debut, for it, too, incorporates as many canvases, hung edge to edge and close to the floor, as will fit the space, but it sequences the works by acquisition number—an equally random order. Warhol left decisions regarding the initial order of the paintings to Cutrone and his assistants. In adhering to no system, they conformed to Warhol's own practice when he chose the colors for the grounds, or selected prints from contact sheets to be made into screens. Yet his method was far from completely arbitrary: restricting the vocabulary of the group to two compositional formats, confining the total number of hues to seventeen, and limiting each canvas to a single color, Warhol filtered a controlled and circumscribed serendipity through the proclivities of taste to create an environmental ensemble that pertains as much to decor as it does to high art. In fact, in typically disarming fashion, Warhol referred to Shadows not as art but as "disco decor."3 Soon after the exhibition, he employed it as a backdrop in a fashion shoot for the April 1979 edition of his magazine Interview.
The work's multiple roles and ambiguous status derive from the innovative and often provocative approach to installation that Warhol developed over the course of his career. For his first European retrospective, which opened at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, early in 1968, he covered the building's Neoclassical facade with his Cow wallpaper. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1971, for the final appearance of a second and more comprehensive retrospective that had toured the United States the previous year, he hung paintings directly over the Cow wallpaper, which now covered the gallery interiors. When he presented his Mao series at the Musée Galliera, Paris, in 1974, he devised a landmark installation that superimposed paintings and prints of the Chinese leader over wallpaper that also depicted him, producing "a colorful, decorative salon."4 Finally, just before his death, Warhol proposed installing his small camouflage paintings directly on their larger counterparts, which differed only in the scale of the motif and the color combinations.
If Warhol's own exhibition history contains precedents for the installation of Shadows, other models for the notion of a single monumental work in many parts were also readily at hand, not least in Blinky Palermo's To the People of New York City (1976–77). This composite abstract painting, arranged in fifteen parts, had been shown the previous January in the same space as Warhol's 1979 installation, and again subsequent to its acquisition by the Lone Star Foundation. Related formal strategies likewise appear in Minimal art, and specifically in the oeuvres of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, both of whom installed large-scale works composed of serially repeated units contiguously along the gallery wall(s) near the junction with the floor.
Ultimately, however, the examples that occasioned Warhol's preoccupation with abstraction were not those of his peers but those of the Abstract Expressionists. Even today this Pop painter's practice is routinely regarded as the nemesis of that movement, and indeed, when embarking on this hallowed terrain, Warhol adopted a far from direct or reverential approach. Read as a homage to Jackson Pollock, his Oxidation series (1978) was as sardonic as it was celebratory; if allusion to Franz Kline may be discerned in Shadows, so may associations with "apocalyptic wallpaper,"5 a term frequently applied to Action Painting by its detractors.
In its iconography and consequently in its metaphysics, the series is conceptually more akin to work by Marcel Duchamp, longtime exemplar for Warhol, than to that of any American artist. Duchamp's cryptic Tu m' (1918) rehearses many of the subjects raised in Warhol's series in its complex and subtle play with issues of representation and with discourses of reality and illusion, presence and absence.6 In taking up this subject Warhol must also have been aware of experiments made by Man Ray, such as Interrogation of Shadows from 1919 and the series of Rayographs from 1921, several of which exist mysteriously in both positive and negative guise.
The shadow, which holds a seminal role in the originary accounts of both painting and photography as art forms, assumes in Warhol's depictions a paradigmatic identity: devoid of identifiable source, detached from its maker or creator, it exists in and of itself, a purposefully made image of "nothing." As Julian Schnabel asserted in the preface to the catalogue marking the first comprehensive exhibition of these works, in 1989, "There is almost nothing on them. Yet they seem to be pictures of something." In a telling afterthought, he added that they are "as full of imagery as any of Andy's other paintings."7
1. Ronnie Cutrone, telephone conversation with the author, November 26, 1998. Mark Francis cites a slightly different account by Cutrone, suggesting that the images were produced by children's small building blocks. See Francis, "No There There or Horror Vacui: Andy Warhol's Installations," Andy Warhol: Paintings 1960–1986 (Lucerne: Kunstmuseum, 1995), p. 72. Other proposals include the shadow cast by an erect penis or by the Empire State Building.
2. The initial commission from Lone Star was for a cycle of 100 paintings. Warhol decided to make an additional eight paintings in this vein for his own purposes. In the end, Lone Star's acquisition comprised 102 paintings.
3. Warhol, "Painter Hangs His Own Paintings," New York, February 5, 1979. Reprinted in Warhol Shadows (Houston: Menil Collection, 1987), n.p.
4. Francis, "No There There," p. 70.
5. The term was originally coined by Harold Rosenberg to describe Action Painting, which he thought lacked "the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will." See Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News 51, no. 8 (December 1952), p. 22.
6. Commissioned by the collector Katherine S. Dreier, Tu m', which measures 271/2 by 1231/4 inches, is the largest painting in Marcel Duchamp's oeuvre. The artist himself confessed that he "never liked it because it is too decorative." Quoted in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Delano Greenridge Editions, 1996), 2:658.
7. Julian Schnabel, preface to Andy Warhol: Shadow Paintings (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 1989), p. 4.