Andy Warhol created Van Heusen (Ronald Reagan) as one of the ten artworks from his Ads series, published in 1985. In the series, Warhol reimagines popular advertisements and propaganda media, showcasing his vivid, ironic, and iconic-sensitive imagination. Van Heusen captures the image of former President Ronald Reagan during his pre-presidential days as an actor and an ambassador for various commercial brands. The screenprint exudes a 3D comic illustration effect, presenting Reagan’s cheerful countenance against a dystopian backdrop, creating a visually captivating and intense composition.
Warhol’s fascination with the intersection between celebrity and commerce shines through in other works from the Ads series, as he notably depicts Judy Garland in furs for Blackglama and James Dean in a poster for the Japanese release of his film Rebel Without a Cause. Drawing inspiration from the 1950s and ’60s Van Heusen shirt commercials featuring Reagan, Warhol captures the former president before his political career, reflecting his deep connection to mass media and contemporary American culture. However, considering that Warhol had a history of portraying political leaders, including Reagan’s predecessors John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the work suggests a deeper layer of political meaning.
According to Warhol’s assistant Bob Colacello, the Pop artist turned down two commissions to paint portraits of Reagan in the months leading up to the election. However, Warhol’s relationship with the Reagan family evolved over time. While initially reluctant to create portraits of Ronald Reagan due to his political affiliations, Warhol attended his inauguration and befriended his son and daughter-in-law. This friendship led to an interview with Nancy Reagan and a subsequent cover feature in Interview magazine. Warhol’s fascination with the influential figure of Reagan resulted in artworks that captured the essence of the president as a cultural icon (even though these pieces might not adorn the walls of the White House).
While the screenprint highlights Reagan’s clean-cut image and his foundational influence on conservative, Yuppie “white-collar” culture in the eighties, it playfully mocks the president’s Hollywood past and suggests that he had always been a spokesperson for big business. The Van Heusen print is not the only artwork by Warhol that depicts Reagan; he also integrated Reagan’s likeness into other works, such as the painting Reagan Budget Deficit, which offers a critical portrayal of the president’s economic policies.
Through his presidential portraits, Warhol’s personal ideology and unique approach to navigating the political sphere becomes apparent. He used art as a medium to convey critique and comment on political figures and their actions. With Van Heusen, Warhol’s portrait of Ronald Reagan stands as a testament to the artist’s enduring fascination with fame and politics, intertwining iconic images with his artistic vision and leaving a lasting impact on the world of pop culture and fine art.
Photo credit: Van Heusen Magazine Advert, 1953. Courtesy of Retro AdArchives.