The Debbie Harry portraits, or: The face Andy Warhol would have liked to have

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Eighties, Pop & Rock

In 1980 Andy Warhol created a series of now iconic portrait paintings of Blondie’s frontwoman Deborah Harry, herself of course a living icon on her own artistic merit. The portraits were not made as a commission for a record cover. Debbie Harry bought one for herself, although she says in an interview in Unseen Warhol (by former Warhol-assistants John O’Connor and Benjanmin Liu, Rizzoli, 1996): “We talked about using the portrait Andy had painted as an album cover. We talked about many possibilities, about working with Stephen Sprouse.”

A collaboration with Sprouse and Warhol did happen for the cover of Debbie Harry’s solo album Rockbird (1986), but it wasn’t until the release of the Blondie album Greatest Hits: Deluxe Redux, in 2014, that two paintings from Warhol’s portrait series were used as album cover art. The album with the band’s – freshly re-recorded – greatest hit singles, came in a double package, backed with a new album, Ghosts Of Download. The latter had its own cover art, by comic book artist J. H. Williams III , of DC Comics fame. The two albums together celebrated 40 Years of Blondie, with a salute to the past and a look into the future.

There were different types of cd packages, but the focus in this post is on the vinyl 2 LP version with gatefold cover. In fact both albums can claim the ‘front cover’, as it were: when you hold the album, and flip it horizontally, you have the other cover as front. ‘Back covers’ are inside the gatefold.

The portrait Debbie Harry bought for herself, on the cover of the album Blondie, Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux (2014).
A second portrait was reproduced on one of the inner sleeves.
Pictures by Chris Stein – Blondie member and at that time also in a romantic relationship with Debbie Harry – at the ‘back cover’ of Deluxe Redux: Warhol gently adjusting the singer’s hair during the photo shoot.
The other front cover of the double package: artwork by J. H. Williams III for the album Ghosts Of Download

In her autobiography Face It (Harper Collins, 2019), Debbie Harry talks about how she met Warhol, and about the creation of the portraits:

“I first met him —and his dazzling entourage— when I was waiting tables at Max’s. I admired Andy so much. Like Andy, I felt the influence of Marcel Duchamp and a kinship to Dada and Popism, which became foundational to what I was creating.

To my amazement, we actually became acquainted. Chris [Stein] and I found ourselves on Andy’s invitation list. He would ask us to dinner sometimes. He didn’t eat much; he’d often cover up his plate with a napkin and take it with him and leave it on a ledge somewhere for a hungry street person. Later on, he invited us to his parties at the Factory on Union Square. Andy would invite all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, uptown, downtown, artists, socialites, eccentrics, you name it. Andy, in his way, was very sociable and hung around with any-and everybody. One of his great skills was that he was a very, very good listener. He would sit there and suck all of it in. His curiosity was endless. He was also extremely supportive of new artists. Chris and I adored Andy—and to find out that he was a fan of ours was heavenly.

Andy put me on the cover of Interview magazine and he threw a party for us at Studio 54 when Heart of Glass went to number one in America. Now that we weren’t on the road, we had gotten to know him a little, and the idea of Andy’s doing my portrait came up; somewhere, at some point, Andy had remarked that if he could have anyone else’s face, it would be mine.

How it worked was that first Andy took some photos of you. He used one of those unique Big Shot Polaroid cameras that looked like a shoebox with a lens on it. The Big Shot was designed for portrait use only—and the quality of the shots was often striking. Perfect for Andy. After taking the Polaroids, he would show them to us and ask quietly—Andy was very soft-spoken—“Well, which one would you like?” I saw a couple that I thought were good but I said, “That’s really up to you.” He’s the artist; it seemed to be the safest thing to have him choose. I’ve lived with that Andy Warhol portrait for a long time now, so I’m much more used to it, but seeing all these portraits of yourself for the first time, by an artist who was so important to you, was startling. I guess I was just stunned. And humbled. Over the years, Chris and I came across a lot of those cameras from the early seventies and we would always buy them for Andy. We’d find them in junk stores at around twenty-five cents a pop. He’d always be very grateful. The portrait itself has taken on a life of its own—reproduced countless times and exhibited in numerous galleries worldwide. I still have that original Warhol. I can’t imagine parting with it. Well, I will be parting with it briefly next year, when I loan it to the Whitney for a retrospective show of Andy’s work.”

The anecdote of Warhol saying he would have liked to have Debbie Harry’s face is also mentioned in the interview with the singer in Unseen Warhol. Authors O’Connor and Liu state that Warhol was always excited by the way Harry looked, and: “I think that Andy thought of you as a pretty female version of himself. He wanted to look like you.” To which Debbie Harry replies: “He did actually say that once, and it got back to me. I thought wow, that’s really flattering.”

“After taking the Polaroids, he would show them to us and ask quietly—Andy was very soft-spoken—“Well, which one would you like?” PHOTO CHRIS STEIN

“During the 1970s, Warhol would charge clients $25,000 for a portrait, plus an extra $15,000 for every additional panel”, says Warhol insider and former Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello in a New York Times interview. “If someone ordered two panels, he would paint four, hoping they would then take them all. Sometimes when people saw how great four looked side by side, they would open their check books a little more.”

Debbie Harry didn’t respond well to the bulk buy offers, and just bought one. “There were four and it was hard to choose”, she remembers, in the same New York Times interview. “They didn’t even try and offer me a discount. They knew I didn’t have that kind of money!”

Debbie Harry in her New York apartment, 1988. “I still have that original Warhol. I can’t imagine parting with it.” PHOTO BRIAN ARIS

More Debbie Harry portraits, frontal close-up

This is the news fact that triggered me to write this post: a Debbie Harry portrait painting from the 1980 series in hot pink, from a private collection, will be on auction at the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction at Sotheby’s London, March 1st. Estimation: between 4 and 6 Million British Pound. This pink Debbie Harry will certainly look familiar if you own a copy of the book Andy Warhol: Portraits (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Phaidon, 2005): it’s the stunning cover image.

UPDATE: the pink Debbie Harry at Sotheby’s London was hammered off at 5,5 million GBP, or 6,6 million GBP including costs and taxes. Which is about 7,4 million euro or 7,9 million USD.

Pink Debbie Harry on the cover of Andy Warhol Portraits (Tony Shafrazi, Phaidon, 2005) will be auctioned at Christie’s. – The portrait reproduced on the inner sleeve of the Blondie Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux album (right), seems to be the same image, but printed with very low color saturation.

Same portrait was also on view at the exhibition Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol in Paris, France, 2009.

A page from the catalog of the exhibition Le Grand Monde d’Andy Warhol in Paris, 2009. The Pink Debbie Harry was on view together with a black and white print on paper with red lips, an acetate and one of the original polaroids, all three from the collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

The Andy Warhol Museum has other color variants of this ‘frontal’ Debbie Harry portrait in its collection: the Blondie singer in blue and in orange. Both were on view at the Warhol Live exhibition, which opened in Montréal, Canada in 2008. They were painted in 1980.

Orange and blue Debbie Harry portraits, in the catalog of the Warhol Live exhibition in Montréal (Prestel, 2008, edited by Stéphane Aquin)

The blue Debbie Harry, by the way, is one of the works on view at the first ever Andy Warhol exhibition in Saudi Arabia: “Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla”. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh collaborated on this exhibition, see below a screenshot of an Instagram post from The Warhol.

More Debbie Harry portraits: head slightly bent

I saw two Debbie Harry portraits at the Warhol exhibition in London’s Tate Modern, in March 2020. (The show had opened just a few days before the covid pandemic forced to close it down again, for half a year.) One was in soft violet color, the other in soft yellow. Both portraits are based on the same polaroid photo – not completely frontal, the head slightly bent sideways – as the much more fiery yellow portrait in Debbie Harry’s private collection.

And yet another yellow portrait is reproduced in Tony Shafrazi’s book Andy Warhol Portraits. In the book this one is dated 1987, but hat is most likely a typo. We will know for sure with the arrival of Volume 6 of the wonderfully detailed Catalogue Raisonné of Warhol paintings, backed by the Warhol Foundation and published by Phaidon. The 6th volume will span the years 1978-1980, so the Debbie Harry portraits should be included.

Two Debbie Harry portraits in the catalog of the Tate Modern exhibition, March 2020. They are both from a private collection.
Two Debbie Harry portraits in the Tony Shafrazi book Andy Warhol Portraits (Phaidon, 2005). Both from private collections. The one on the left is dated 1987, but most likely by mistake.

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