Andy Warhol’s LENIN / Black & Red

Andy Warhol’s LENIN / Black & Red

Dark. Powerful. In late 1986 Andy Warhol created his last portrait series before his death. Often referred to as the Lenin Series / Back & Red. It was a creatively fruitful period and included his affiliation with fellow New Yorker, artist Jean-michel Basquiat. (See article above). However, the Lenin series was more then just Warhol’s final portraits before his unfortunate death. Much more. The last period of Warhol’s life was a period of unique creative renewal. The artist making a bold change in both the subject matter and creative style of his art. The Lenin seriesdemonstrates as much; an undeniable dark-power, a starkness and seriousness in the subject matter that is unlike anything else he had produced. In the series, a young Vladimir IIyich Ulanov (Lenin was an alias) is shown leaning forward against a pile of nondescript books with a penetrating glare. A look of complete conviction. Of course, Lenin was not the first revolutionary figure that was the subject of Warhol’s art. He had famously used Chairman Mao Zedong as the subject of his 1977 exhibition. The same year the Cultural Revolution ended after Mao‘s death. But the Lenin series is different. The 199 portraits of Mao all echoed Warhol‘s famous 60’s Pop-Art style; bold, colorful prints that defined an era. Nevertheless, the Mao’s lacks the simmering intensity of the Lenin portraits. The Lenin paintings demonstrating an eagerness to be confrontational in a serious and direct way. But more about that later.

From September 26 to October 4th Andy Warhol showed his series of Lenin paintings at the London gallery of Bernd Kluser. All based on an original photograph given to him of Vladimir Lenin. In addition to the Lenin Black pictured (personal favorite), Warhol created a number of Lenin Red portraits the are equally as intense. With many art critics finding the Lenin Red even more dramatic and confrontational. Although it is the Lenin Blacks that have become more sought after in the collectors market. Either way, it’s a remarkable series of painting showing Warhol’s continued relevance during the later period of his life. Even challenging the conventions of his own celebrated work.

Of course, Warhol created many famous portraits across a vast section of individuals throughout his career. But perhaps none of them were as insightful (and controversial) toward the society in which he lived then the Lenin portrait. Remember, the image of Lenin is deeply linked to the intellectual power and threat of Marxism or Soviet Communism. Particularly in the U.S., where Warhol’s portrait of Lenin dives deep into that uniquely American mixture of anti-intellectualism and the countries own history of imperialism and slaveryLenin is much more then one of the most notable political figures of the 20th century. He is the father of the Russian Revolution. A revolution most Americans believe to be the antithesis of the, so called, American DreamLenin represents (for many) the cold, dark eyes of the world outside the walls. And this fear takes on a biblical ascent too. Consider the mythology built around the those that first arrived in North America from Europe. A group of people most Americans still refer to as “pilgrims” to this day. The origins and aspirations of the nation should be clear. 

Let us consider for a moment that the Lenin portrait is Warhol’s confrontation with this legacy of societal fear and mistrust that remain such a dominant trait of the American character. Be it 1987 or in 2022. A trait that is revealed in the never ending imperialism of American foreign policy. Just take a look at today’s headlines.

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations or people? It cannot” – Vladimir Lenin

Basquiat / 1996 / Film of the Day

Written and directed by Julian SchnabelBasquiat is the 1996 film based on the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The American artist who revolutionized the post-modern art world with his raw, textured collages and neo-expressionist style.  Basquiat first gaining a sizable public acknowledgement for his graffiti-art that peppered the walls and subways of lower Manhattan in 1978/79. His art and street-style quickly become the voice of a hip new subculture. Along with rap and punk music, graffitipainting articulated the creativity and views of the New York underground. Often exposing the central lie at the heart of the American Dream; the illusion of equality. Basquiat’s paintings using expressionist designtextureabstraction and negation to create a cultural commentary. Disjointed words, random numbers and distorted drawings adding a direct and uncompromising element to his work. Challenging society by confront issues of systemic racism within the elite predatory class. For example, his famous graffiti signature “SAMO” used in his early work began as a slang term between Basquiat and his long-time friend and collaborator, Al Diaza. The two creating an important “character” of their art and a statement about art and society; SAMO = Same old shit

Eventually, Basquiat’s dreams of fame and fortune did coming true. He became the “toast of the town” in the New York art world. Even receiving the social embrace (and friendship) of Andy Warhol and the world famous art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. It seemed that SAMO had arrived. A status that he both craved and deplored. And those contradictions seemed to be everywhere. In 1983, after returning to New York from a long vacation with friends in Europe and AsiaBasquiat created (perhaps) his most famous and emotional work of art. Painting Defacement in response to the murder of Michael Stewart. A young black artist arrested for painting graffiti in Union Station and then beaten for hours by the New York City Transit Police. By the time Stewartfinally arrived at the hospital, he was in a coma from which he would never awaken. Dying 13 days later. The incident scarred Basquiat. Although he had not known Micheal Stewart well,  Basquiat never fully recovered from the brutality of Stewart’s killing. The murder was a reminding that under the veneer of culture, wealth and fame that he enjoyed, the old forces of hate and supremacy still controlled the streets. SAMO

Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat does not touch on all of the events of the artist’s life. How could it? Instead the film focuses on the late 70s/early 80s art, music and fashion scene. Standing as a kind of love letter to the friendship between Basquiat and Andy Warhol. The two artists finding something in each other. Warhol was a mentor. Helping Jean-Michel Basquiat navigate the difficult terrain between the artistic and commercial. And while Schnabel mostly presents a rather romantic view of the period, he does capture the meloncholy and tender sadness of a brilliant artist and his personal struggle to find love, friendship and success. Basquiatwas a man caught between two worlds. The cool street artist that was now part of the commercial art world. His feeling of detachment from old friends vs. his mistrust of new famous friends. Would anyone be able to survive in this situation? Ultimately, he never found the balance needed. Basquiat dying of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. 

The film is full of good / great performances that include David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger. With additional actors Jeff Wright(as Basquiat), Benicio del Toro (always brilliant), Courtney LoveWilliam Defoe, Christopher Walken and Parker Posey all enhancing the background of this very special story about a talented rising star of the New York art community during a period when anything and everything seem possible. Maybe even probable. The illusion of the dream had not yet melted away. The fashion, music, art and hope had not yet succumb to the political ugliness that would soon grip the entire nation. 

It’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack to the film is an interesting snapshot from the period. The soundtrack features some great music used effectively; the powerful flash of PIL’s brilliant Public ImageGrandMaster Flash’s groovy, cocaine masterpiece White Lines and a beautiful, surreal rendition of Bobby Zimmerman’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue by Them. All are used to stunning effect in the film. Although the official soundtrack does miss some important tracks used in the film. Specially, the Miles Davis and CharlieParker tracks that set the mood and vibe of the film. A few featured tracks do seem to miss the mark entirely. Notably, the Rolling Stones’ Beast of Burden and Waiting on a Friend are both oddly out-of-place and overly similar.