Andy Warhol. Human Heart, mid-1979. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen. 22 x 22 inches (55.9 x 55.9 cm). Artwork © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., New York. Image courtesy: The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Richard Stoner

The story behind Andy Warhol's Heart paintings

Our new Catalogue Raisonné traces the enormously inventive period of Warhol’s career from mid-1977 to 1980 - his heart paintings are among the many works forensically documented

In art and western culture, no visual image has been more associated with the concept of beauty, love, and the deepest of human emotions, than the heart. The first artist depiction of a heart dates from the mid-thirteenth-century in the French manuscript the Roman de la poire, in which a young man holds his pine cone-shaped heart towards his lady love. Leonardo Da Vinci, of course, is often credited with the first anatomical drawing of the heart, in the 16th Century.

Andy Warhol began drawing hearts in the 1950s, and to the end of his life, when signing books or souvenirs of his work, would routinely include a heart symbol alongside his autograph.

While they both derive from distinct contexts: consumer culture, on one hand, and specialized studies on the other, both of Warhol’s famous heart painting series, meticulously researched, described, and catalogued in our new Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné were surely linked in the artist’s mind.

At 802 pages and consisting of two hardcover books in a slipcase with over 740 paintings and sculptures, Volume 6 of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné - the highly praised, definitive reference to Andy Warhol’s extensive artistic production - covers an enormously inventive and productive period of Warhol’s career from mid-1977 to 1980.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be bringing you some of the many stories from it as we count down to its publication in July. Today's story focuses on Andy’s Hearts with text excerpted largely, but not exclusively, from the book.

In January or early February 1979, Warhol produced twenty seven small Heart paintings based on the simple heart-shaped sign popularly associated with Valentine’s Day. According to Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol's Interview magazine, who received one on his birthday on May 8, 1979, Warhol intended these paintings to be given as Valentine’s Day gifts to “all his Studio 54 friends.”

andy warhol hearts rough

In the event, the Heart paintings were only occasionally given on Valentine’s Day, but more often on birthdays or as tokens of friendship and affection. Henceforward, Warhol would regularly produce series of small canvases that he intended to be distributed as gifts. While not derived from photographic negatives, like the images in the Reversal series, the Heart paintings produce a reversal effect in which the heart-shaped silhouette is surrounded by a field of opaque black ink, exposing the paint layer below.

The Heart paintings were, in fact, Warhol’s second series of dedicated gift paintings. They follow the Studio 54 VIP Complimentary Drinks Tickets series that he produced in December 1978 as Christmas gifts for “all the Halston family.” Though he seems to have distributed roughly two-thirds of the Hearts series as gifts, only two were given on Valentine’s Day, both to his lover Jed Johnson. Bob Colacello remembered his heart painting gift fondly in his book Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up.

“Andy gave me a tiny painting of a heart for my birthday that May, 1979. The heart was mint green, but the background was shiny black. He had done a bunch of small heart paintings for Valentine’s Day, ‘for all my 54 friends',"  he said. “Some were black and grey, others were candy-colored. I liked mine the best, because it was both hard and sweet – just like Andy, I thought. Andy had left it on my desk, wrapped in an Interview cover, which is what he usually used for gift wrapping. When I thanked him for it, he said, 'Those are your favourite colours, aren’t they, Bob?' They were.”

In the summer and possibly early fall of 1979, Warhol produced a series of twenty-one Human Heart paintings. Twenty small canvases (variously measuring 22 by 22, 21 by 21, and 21 by 20 inches) were painted in conjunction with a nearly ten-metre-wide canvas, consisting of 156 repeating images of a human heart. Warhol executed this painting as a mural proposal for a new building being constructed in Bethesda, Maryland for the National Institute of Health. He sourced the images for the twenty-one paintings from three plates in two professional medical atlases.

The Human Heart series employs a reversal effect, although the images are not photographic negatives like the contemporaneous Reversal series. Instead, the reversal effect is produced by the opaque black field, which surrounds the image of each heart and exposes Warhol’s painted backgrounds. Warhol’s painted backgrounds for the Human Heart series tend to be painterly and multi-coloured, involving both wet-into-wet colour mixtures and finger painting. The scale of the mural is comparable to the five panoramic Reversal paintings of this time, and its palette and touch are especially like 150 Colored Marilyns.

andy warhol hearts rough

However, the mural and a second proposal for Flowers wallpaper, submitted on his behalf to the NIH by Julie Sylvester of Heiner Friedrich Gallery, New York, were both rejected by the panel overseeing the building. The rejected mural and twenty small, stretched canvases remained in the studio, virtually unknown during Warhol’s lifetime.

In a sense, the two bodies of work may be said to occupy polar positions within the spectrum of representation: from a rudimentary graphic notation to a photographically detailed specimen. They also derive from categorically distinct contexts: popular consumer culture, on the one hand, and specialized professional studies, on the other. Finally, their intended audiences couldn’t have been more different: the first series privately circulated as gifts, while the second, had it been accepted, would have been a public-facing mural.

Although they respond to different conditions and contexts, the two series were surely linked in Warhol’s mind. Prior to the gift paintings of early 1979, Warhol intermittently introduced hearts as whimsical, romantic, or erotic attributes of the figures in his early drawings. Hearts are most abundant in the drawings he made of young men during the later 1950s and associated with an unrealised project, known as The Boy Book. In certain Boy drawings, tiny hearts flutter beside the mouth like a kiss, mirroring the silhouette of the lips, or are planted on strategic parts of the body, including the chest (where the heart lies) and the erogenous zone of the genitals.

During the 1970s and 1980s, as he became increasingly famous, Warhol routinely autographed his books and souvenirs of his work at signings, openings, and dinners. On Campbell Soup cans, copies of Interview, exhibition posters, table napkins and menus, and articles of clothing, his signature was often accompanied by a quick sketch of a soup can, flowers, genitalia, or a heart.

The paintings and sculptures reproduced in The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures mid-1977–1980 (Volume 6) are accompanied by over 700 images of source materials, the artist’s Polaroids, contact sheets, and archival photographs of gallery and museum installations, as well as related works.

The editors of the catalogue raisonné and a team of researchers scoured the secondary literature, examined thousands of works of art, reviewed the artist’s archives and diary entries, and interviewed assistants, colleagues, portrait sitters, and friends to elucidate Warhol’s materials, techniques, and artistic process. Take a closer look here.