Your Andy Warhol Specialists

Andy Warhol’s Pop Art Portraits: from Rock Stars to World Leaders

By Mason Rogers and Natalie Williams



Andy Warhol has been dubbed the Prince of Pop Art and is one of the most prolific artists of all time. His work ranges from silkscreens, paintings, films, and photographs, to his tabloid magazine Interview, and to the art of business itself. Of his many endeavors, perhaps the most acclaimed pieces of his oeuvre are the stunning pop art portraits that he created throughout the entirety of his career: starlets, athletes, rock stars, politicians, and global figures were all captured by Andy Warhol. Using photographs of these subjects, often taken by himself, but also scavenged from newspapers, movie stills, and publicity photos, Warhol relied on his screen printing technique—the heartbeat of his catalog—to replicate these images and contort their nature with neon pinks, electric blues, shocking yellows, and everything in between. His developing style embodied his obsession with pop culture, and the characters that celebrities played on the global stage of the 20th century. Moreover, his methods, too, embodied a fascination with the mass production and repetition inherent to the aesthetics of the postwar economy. Warhol was interested in the replication of imagery and sought to find a method by which he could emulate his society’s mechanism of production. He found screenprinting to be the perfect medium—he described it as “quick and chancy”—and appropriated all sorts of syndicated images, famously honing in on the iconic Campbell’s Soup Can, to photographs of the Birmingham Race Riot, and of course, the faces to which all of the world’s eyes were glued. By appropriating images of the most famous people in the world (as well as those fortunate enough to personally commission his artistry), Warhol looked at mass media as an avenue of ready-mades, extrapolating the Dadaist traditions of Marcel Duchamp and introducing a revolutionary style of art-making that broke the norms of the time.

The Beginnings: Glamor and Tragedy

On August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in her home in Los Angeles. Within weeks, Warhol started making silkscreen portraits of the actress, having just recently started experimenting with screen printing. “My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face—the first Marilyns” (from POPism, 1980). Monroe was an actress and singer who represented the ideals of fame, sex appeal, and the totality of the American dream. Her death was gruesome and unexpected. The news of her fate reverberated through the public and sent a shockwave of changing perceptions of her personality and life in Hollywood. Both saddened and fascinated by her death, Warhol created many portraits of her, of varying sizes, colors, and repetitions. These include Marilyn Diptych, Gold Marilyn Monroe, and Marilyn Two Times (Double Marilyn), all executed in 1962, and all relying on the same publicity photograph of Monroe for their basis (Gene Korman’s publicity photograph for her film Niagara, 1953). While Warhol returned to his Marilyn motiff many, many times throughout his career, he perhaps did so most notably in 1967, when he published his 10-piece Marilyn Monroe series of silkscreen portraits as an edition of 250. Today, these are the Marilyn images that circulate the art market with the most consistency, trading hands across the globe in perennial fashion.

In the months following his initial experimentations with the Marilyn image, Warhol began a similar endeavor centered on the actress Elizabeth Taylor. His Liz portraits were also based on a publicity image of the star: a headshot for her 1960 film Butterfield 8, which shows her staring demurely at the camera. Much like Monroe, Liz Taylor was an icon of glamor, fame, and beauty in America, while also being a tabloid star due to her tumultuous romantic relationships. Warhol was interested in these stars because of the dissonance between America’s popular view of them—their “image”—and the truth and reality behind their limelight-cloaked facade. Additionally, when Warhol made his first portrait of Taylor, she was struggling with a bad bout of pneumonia and was on the brink of death (she was pronounced dead 4 times), further alluding to Warhol’s inclination for documenting death and tragedy that characterized many of his early works. In Taylor’s portrait she is shown in mainly reds and blues with her face heavily made up, signifying the way fame controlled her life: Warhol shows us a symbol, not an individual.


Athletes and Performers


I said that the athletes were better than movie stars and I don’t know what I’m talking about because athletes are the new movie stars…”

As Warhol’s career advanced he began to explore new subjects, with athletes occupying a unique space at the intersection of celebrity and self-identity. By the late 1970s, he was deep into the commissions business. He would take dozens of commissions a year and charge about $25,000 per painting, plus more for each additional panel. At the time, the commissioned portraits funded Warhol’s multimedia business-as-art project, including Interview magazine. 

In 1977, Warhol was commissioned by Richard Weismann to create a series of Athlete portraits. The final product included the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicklaus, Pelé, and Muhammad Ali, the professional boxer who, at the time, was living on a compound dubbed “Fighter’s Heaven” near Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. Warhol tracked him down and showed up at his training camp, camera in hand, to take the polaroids that would comprise Muhammad Ali’s place in the series. 

Warhol’s athletes series was completed in 1977, and exhibits a painterly quality throughout, separating it from his typical screen prints. The next year, however, Warhol would publish a portfolio dedicated to Muhammad Ali. In the series, the boxer is presented in various poses either looking at the viewer or looking down at his body and his closed fists. Warhol captures the superhero-like status of Ali in some of the paintings, while others feel more vulnerable and remind us that we are witnessing the fighter outside his natural habitat, in front of the camera instead of in the ring. One print stands out from the series especially: Muhammad Ali (181), which hones in directly on Ali’s fist and arm. In the Athletes series, the players are depicted with props from their respective sports: soccer balls, tennis rackets, and headgear. Warhol’s choice to focus a print on the boxer’s hand is a direct reference to the tools of his trade.

Separate from his Athletes series, Warhol painted other sports players and performers, such as Wayne Gretzky, Christer Kellgren, and Pete Rose. In 1980, he made room for a similar kind of figure in his canon. Commissioned by William Hechter, a Torontonian lawyer, Warhol created a portrait of Canadian ballet dancer Karen Kain. Kain was the artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada and was recognized as one of the best ballet dancers internationally. In this series she is depicted amongst graphic intersecting rectangles and vivid color blocking, two stylistic staples of Warhol’s work in the 1980’s. Like the majority of his portraits in the 70’s and 80’s, Warhol captured the image of Karen Kain using his polaroid camera. He called it his “pen and paper.” For commissioned works, he met with his subjects (usually in his own studio) for a few hours to take multiple polaroids, sometimes staging various scenes with props and equipment to capture his idea of each person’s character. Karen Kain’s symmetrical hand gestures here evoke the balance, artistry, and physical skill it takes to be a renowned ballet dancer. 

Warhol also screen printed images of Martha Graham, though they are less “portraits” and more like choreographic stills. Martha Graham was perhaps the most important dancer of the 20th century, and revolutionized the art of dance itself.


Politicians, Thinkers, and Leaders

Vote McGovern—In 1972, Warhol was commissioned by George McGovern’s presidential campaign to create a political poster for his candidacy. Warhol made few references to politics in the past, and this was his first overly political piece, allowing the opinions of the artist to slip through—something which is notoriously absent in Warhol’s catalog. Choosing to portray McGovern’s opponent Richard Nixon, Warhol turned Nixon into a glowing demagogue with blue skin and yellow lips and eyes. This piece is somewhat of a milestone in Warhol’s work and shows a primary moment when the artist exhibited any sort of political opinion. The work has inspired appropriations in recent times, notably re-imagined by artist Deborah Kass as “Vote Hillary,” showing a strikingly similar image of Donald Trump.

One year after Vote McGovern, Warhol made a portrait of Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Communist party in China. Shortly after Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Warhol read in Life magazine that Mao was the “most famous person on earth.” The idea for the series came directly from Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol’s art dealer, who commissioned the works, saying Warhol should paint the most important people. “I have been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen” Warhol remarked in 1971. This is one of the most controversial pieces of Warhol’s career and was based off of the infamous propaganda poster that was disseminated throughout China. By depicting the leader in this graffiti-like way, Warhol transgressed all of the strict and sacred codes that surrounded Mao’s image in China. Like his portraits of Hollywood stars, Warhol was interested in the proliferation of Mao’s likeness and the ways he could propose new interpretations of his portrait while expressing the incredible fame of the subject through manipulations in color and texture. In contrast to some of his early works, this series notably featured distinct, quick brush strokes on top of the screenprint. These seem to allude to Warhol’s desire to combat the realism of the original portrait of Mao and interject his own hand.

Over a decade after the Maos, and in the same year that Warhol passed away, he created the Lenin series (1987), another outlier and notable political work from Warhol’s oeuvre. Vladimir Lenin was a radical revolutionary, political theorist who led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Like Mao, the inclusion of such a controversial political and intellectual figure speaks to the diversity of Warhol’s subject matter and his willingness to move beyond typical celebrities. Lenin’s likeness was larger than life and incredibly politically potent. In this series Warhol uses the color red to symbolize the Communist Party and the Bolshevik Revolution that Lenin led, with his figure being depicted in faint black lines. Unlike most of his other work which usually employed varying color, thicker line weight, and geometric shapes, this portrait stands out due to its somberness and simplicity, with Lenin being swallowed by the red and black, staring at the viewer and giving them a chance to reflect on his lasting political meaning.

Going even further into Warhol’s portraits, beyond politicians and easily-recognizable stars of popular culture, he also created portraits of various intellectual figures of the 20th century. The influence of these people cannot be denied, although they are not celebrities or popular figures in a traditional sense, but may belong to the realms of academia, philanthropy, literature, and medicine. 

In 1980, Warhol created Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, commissioned by gallerist and friend Ronald Feldman, who played a part in several of Warhol’s 1980s endeavors. In a diary entry from 1979, Warhol said: “I haven’t been told for sure yet who’s in it…I think they were considering Bobby Dylan but I read that he turned born-again Christian.” The series came to include the likes of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis whose work has had a monumental effect on the realm of psychiatry; Albert Einstein, the great physicist who sculpted the fields of relativity and quantum mechanics; Franz Kafka, the german author who expanded the art of literature and continues to influence writers today; and Golda Meir, one of the founders of the State of Israel and the first woman prime minister of Israel. In his Jews series alone, Warhol demonstrates that his portraiture knew no bounds. 

Five years after publishing Ten Portraits of Jews, Warhol created his Reigning Queens series, featuring four queens of the era: Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The latter is surely the most popular among collectors and the most well known from the series. Based on a photo of her taken in 1972 by Peter Grugeon at the Windsor Castle in Berkshire, Warhol created 4 main iterations of the Queen in an edition of 40 (plus 10 APs, 5 PPs, 3 HCs, and 30 TPs); all 4 were purchased by the Royal Collection in 2012, as part of the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, 60 years on the throne. Warhol’s print thus became the only portrait of the queen within the Royal Collection that she herself did not sit for. It is one of Warhol’s most famous portraits, and its small edition size makes it especially desirable to collectors as well.



In 1971, Warhol was asked to design the album cover for Sticky Fingers for the Rolling Stones and created a provocative design that is now one of the most iconic album covers of all time. It wasn’t his only foray into album art; Warhol also created record covers for Aretha Franklin, and John Lennon, both of which can stand alone as their own pop art portraits. 

Warhol and Jagger, lead singer of the Stones, became good friends and business associates, socializing in the same circles of the 1970’s New York City scene. Four years after creating Sticky Fingers, the artist published the Mick Jagger series, comprising 10 screen print portraits of the British rock star. Like his portraits of women in the 60’s, Warhol was interested in the glamour and sex appeal of Jagger. He shot a polaroid series of the singer and turned them into large colorblocked screen prints. This series marks one of the first times Warhol took it upon himself to photograph his subject, marking a great turning point from his early methods. It soon became a staple of his portraiture process especially as he began taking commissions. In the screenprints Warhol used his normal black outline for the body and face of the subject, but instead painted geometric swaths of various colors across the black. This was a stylistic change from his other portraits and was expressive and bold. The combination of Warhol taking his own photos of Jagger, and the use of color blocking techniques, makes the series a significant work in terms of the artist’s artistic evolution, and foreshadows the trajectory of his work from the 1970s to the mid 1980s.

In 1984, Warhol was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine to make prints of American popstar Prince. The print has become one of Warhol’s most infamous prints: it is now the subject of an ongoing Supreme Court case regarding the bounds of fair use. Nearly 40 years after its creation, Warhol’s Prince is alive with controversy, and stands at the center of a discussion that will likely shape the lawfulness of fair use for years to come.

Warhol was a huge fan of Prince and attended many of his concerts. He decided to use a photograph of him taken in 1981 by Lynn Goldsmith as the source image for the silkscreen. Considering how close Warhol was to the end of his career at this time, his portrait of Prince is remarkably similar to his earlier portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, though it does maintain some of the stylistic linework present in his later portfolios. By using his 60’s style of simple colors and graphic outlines, compared to his 70’s and 80’s style that employed geometric shapes and brush strokes, Warhol is possibly reflecting on how his work has progressed over the years. Additionally, while Prince was a huge inspiration for the artist, Warhol never really met him, and only admired him from afar. This distance between the two, and his larger than life celebrity aura, coupled with the artist’s design choices, makes for an interesting parallel when considering how Warhol portrayed him in a similar way to Marilyn or Liz Taylor.

Warhol’s portraits evolved significantly throughout his artistic career. While the examples mentioned here just scratch the surface in terms of what (and who) Warhol made, they highlight some of the landmarks of his career and can provide insight for collectors, fans, and artists as to how Warhol’s work evolved. Warhol’s pop art portraits truly enveloped all kinds of figures. In a word, Warhol painted people who were influential, without discrimination. Warhol’s interest in fame and celebrity formed the cornerstone of his career; it is only fitting that these fascinations led him to appropriate the images of his subjects and turn their fame into something that propelled his own career forward. In the end, Warhol’s portraits are timeless, they stand on as the most lucrative and admired products of his career; glamorous, unblinking, and larger than life.

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