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Chemical reactions

For a brief period at the end of the 1970s, Andy Warhol used paintings made with urine to push the envelope of what can be considered art. We uncover the story behind Oxidation Painting (1978).

Andy Warhol. Oxidation Painting

Andy Warhol. Oxidation Painting, 1978. Mixed media and copper metalic pigment on canvas, Overall: 228.6 × 177.8 cm. Private Collection. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOCAN

There’s no polite way to say it—in the late 1970s, Andy Warhol made a series of paintings using urine. A painting selected from the 1978 Oxidation series (image above)—better known as “piss paintings”—is on view now at the AGO, featured in Warhol’s career retrospective exhibition until October 24.

Always one to toy with controversy and humour, Warhol’s process behind making these works is as straightforward as one might expect. For the paintings in the Oxidation series, he and his studio assistants poured their urine (or urinated) directly onto mural-sized canvases, painted with copper-mixed paint and laid out on the floor. Visitors to The Factory were invited to contribute too while observing the spectacle of creating such works. The resulting effect was abstract “blooms” of green, yellow and orange tones created through oxidation, the chemical reaction between the urine and the metal-infused paint. Warhol, allegedly, went as far as to instruct one of his assistants, Ronnie Cutrone, not to urinate in the morning when he woke up at home and to wait until he arrived at the studio. Cutrone’s urine created a “pretty” colour on the canvas because of his regular vitamin B intake, Warhol wrote in a 1977 diary entry. Said to have experimented with the concept of a “piss painting” as far back as the early ‘60s, Warhol developed a technique to create these works, ensuring the paintings would have the desired outcome he was looking for.

The Oxidation series enters the Warhol oeuvre at a moment of change. Beginning around 1977, he shifted his practice away from the screenprints and photo-based works he is most associated with and towards experimentation and abstraction. The Oxidation series works as an example of this departure, along with two additional series involving bodily fluids: Piss Paintings, urinating or pouring urine on primed canvases (no metallic paint), and Cum Paintings, semen ejaculated or poured on primed canvases. Bob Colacello, writer and close friend to Warhol, once described the Oxidation series as a parody of Jackson Pollock’s drip technique, saying that Warhol liked to make art historical references in his work. Pollock, art provocateur in his own right who achieved fame in the 1950s as Warhol arrived in New York, is rumoured to have urinated on paintings commissioned by clients he didn’t care for and in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. It’s unclear whether Warhol’s parody was served with reverence or critique. 

Colacello also explained that Warhol was reflecting the times he found himself in, drawing associations with younger artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. According to Colacello, Warhol drew inspiration from the goings-on in New York’s queer nightlife and bathhouses with one of his assistants Victor Hugo, driving much of his sexually charged work during this time. The Sex Parts and Torso series (Torso (1977), also on view at the AGO), also on view at the AGO, play into these ideas as well, with references to erotic photography and pornography. 

Warhol is certainly not the first or last artist to incorporate bodily fluids or related objects into their art seemingly for shock value purposes. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917) comes to mind as a distant predecessor and Andres Serrano’s 1987 work Immersion (Piss Christ) went on to provoke the art world almost a decade later. Like much of Warhol’s work, the meaning behind the Piss, Oxidation and Cum series, is vague and perhaps intentionally so. 

Andy Warhol is on view at the AGO only until October 24. Buy your tickets now and don’t miss your chance to see this blockbuster exhibition.

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