Andy Warhol's Assassination Attempt
and Its Impact on His Art

This print shows an image of the gun used by Lee Harvey Oswald, the American sniper who assassinated President Kennedy. It is done in tones of green.Flash November 22 (F. & S. II.37) © Andy Warhol 1968
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Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

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In the whirlwind of the 1960s, few figures captured the spirit of cultural and artistic revolution quite like Andy Warhol. But this changed after a critical event in Warhol's life: the 1968 assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas. This near-fatal shooting marked a pivotal moment in Warhol's life, leading a dramatic shift in his experience of the zeitgeist of the era. In exploring the circumstances leading to this incident and its profound impact on Warhol's art and psyche, it is possible to make broader reflections on fame, violence, and societal change in the late 20th century.

Warhol's Rise to Fame

Warhol's rise to fame reflects his unique artistic vision and the wider cultural shifts of the 20th century. Born Andrew Warhola in Pennsylvania in 1928, Warhol showed early artistic talent and pursued formal training in graphic design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1949, Warhol moved to New York City, where he found success as a commercial illustrator. His work appeared in magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and he became known for his whimsical ink drawings for shoe advertisements

Warhol's breakthrough in the fine art world came in the early 1960s. He started creating paintings based on comic strips and advertisements, aligning with the emerging Pop Art movement. In 1962, Warhol created his iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans series, which solidified his fame in the art world. Displaying 32 canvases of the soup cans, each representing a different flavour; the work challenged traditional perceptions of art in its embrace of mundane everyday objects. Warhol's assembly-line production method was also revolutionary and his studio, known as The Factory, became a famous gathering place for bohemians, LGBTQ+ icons, playwrights, Hollywood celebrities, wealthy patrons and intellectuals.

Warhol's work became synonymous with Pop Art, and his approach to creating – focusing on mass production and consumer culture – had a lasting influence on the art world. He challenged the distinctions between high and low art and blurred the lines between art and commerce. Furthermore, he had a deep understanding of celebrity culture and the media, becoming as much a cultural icon as the subjects he depicted, due to his enigmatic personality and distinctive silver wig. Warhol was at his peak when he encountered Valerie Solanas.

This image shows the front and back cover of Solana's book, SCUM Manifesto. The author is shown on the front cover, while the headline "Andy Warhol fights for life" is on the back.Image © Creative Commons via Flickr / S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas

Valerie Solanas: The Woman Behind the Gun

Valerie Solanas, the woman who attempted to assassinate Warhol, is a complex figure in contemporary history. Born in 1936 in New Jersey, Solanas had a troubled upbringing that was marked by abuse and neglect, including a period of homelessness. Despite this, she demonstrated a sharp intellect and a talent for writing, eventually studying psychology at the University of Maryland. She moved to New York City in the mid-1960s, where she wrote a radical feminist work titled SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). It advocated for the elimination of the male sex and the creation of an all-female society, which was a provocative and extreme expression of feminist thought, reflecting her anger and frustration with the patriarchal society of the time.

Solanas first encountered Warhol in 1967, and asked him to produce a play she had written, about a man-hating woman who kills a man. Intrigued by her eccentricity and the manifesto, Warhol agreed to read her script. However, the relationship between the two soured when Warhol lost her script and she began believing he was attempting to steal her work. Feeling exploited and ignored, Solanas' mental health plummeted. Following the shooting, Solanas turned herself in to the police and was charged with attempted murder, assault and illegal possession of a gun. During the trial, Solanas was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; her actions were partly attributed to her mental health issues and her belief that Warhol had too much control over her life and career.

Her act was interpreted by some as a misguided and extreme form of feminist protest, while others viewed it as a tragic outcome of her mental illness and the societal pressures she faced. She died in 1988 of pneumonia. Despite her violent act, Solanas' life and the SCUM Manifesto have been studied and discussed in feminist and academic circles, contributing to the discourse on gender, power and mental health.

The Assassination Attempt: A Day of Infamy

The assassination attempt on Warhol happened on June 3, 1968, a day that profoundly impacted Warhol's life and career. On that fateful Monday, Solanas arrived at The Factory, then located at 33 Union Square West in New York City. She felt like Warhol had undervalued her script while also conspiring to steal her work, specifically her play titled Up Your Ass. This belief was exacerbated by her mental health issues and a growing sense of paranoia. That morning, Solanas had warned producer Margo Feiden that she intended to shoot Warhol and Feiden had tried to notify the police to no avail.

Although Warhol was known for his open-door policy at The Factory, and Solanas had been a marginal figure in its scene, several people present attempted to get her to leave without seeing the artist. Unfortunately, he boarded the elevator he was in, and they entered the studio together. The phone rang, and when Warhol picked it up, Solanas shot him three times, seriously wounding him; the bullets passed through several vital organs and required extensive surgery to save his life. She also shot art critic and curator Mario Amaya, who received minor injuries, and tried to shoot Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes, but her gun jammed.

The shooting sent shockwaves through the art world and beyond. Warhol was rushed to the hospital and underwent a five-hour operation. His life hung in the balance for several days and, even after his physical recovery, the psychological scars remained. The event marked a significant turning point in Warhol's life and art, leading to a more guarded and reclusive lifestyle.

Warhol's Physical and Psychological Trauma

Warhol's physical and psychological trauma following the assassination attempt had profound and lasting effects on his personal life and artistic output. The severity of Warhol's physical injuries from the shooting cannot be overstated; he was shot multiple times, with bullets piercing his lungs, stomach, liver, oesophagus, and spleen. The injuries were so severe that he was clinically declared dead at one point during a surgery. Warhol underwent a long and painful recovery process, which included wearing a surgical corset for the rest of his life to support his injured torso. These physical injuries exacerbated a lifelong fear of hospitals and surgeries, as Warhol often expressed a heightened awareness of his own vulnerability and a fear of dying.

The psychological impact of the assassination attempt was as significant as the physical trauma. Warhol, who had already been a somewhat shy and private individual, became increasingly withdrawn and paranoid. He hired full-time security for his studio and personal protection, a clear departure from the open-door policy of The Factory that had defined his earlier career.

Artistically, the shooting marked a shift in his work: Warhol's art post-1968 took on a more introspective and sombre tone, reflecting his experiences and newfound vulnerability. This ordeal furthered his obsession with themes of violence and death in his art, which he had previously explored in the Death And Disaster series, but became even more evident in series like Skulls and Guns. Here, he explored mortality and the sinister nature of violence, a direct reflection of his own experiences.

Warhol's work ethic and approach to art were also affected. He delved deeper into the business side of art, perhaps as a way to exert control in a life that had felt uncontrollably threatened. He became more meticulous about documenting his life and interactions, possibly driven by a heightened sense of mortality.

The Factory: Before and After the Shooting

The trauma also influenced Warhol’s interaction with the people around him. He became more selective about his social circle and collaborations. The Factory, once a bustling hub of creativity and avant-garde personalities, took on a more business-like atmosphere.

The Factory, which was first located in midtown Manhattan and later moved to Union Square, was known for its silver-painted walls and tin foil decorations. During the early and mid-1960s, The Factory was a bustling hub of artistic activity that created a melting pot of artists, musicians, actors, writers, and an array of eccentric personalities from the New York art scene and beyond. It was more than just a studio; it was a social hotspot, hosting legendary parties and gatherings, and known for its often hedonistic atmosphere. It was here that Warhol created his most famous works, including the Marilyn Monroe silkscreens. The space was synonymous with the birth and rise of Pop Art.

After the shooting, Warhol moved The Factory to a more secure location and the atmosphere changed dramatically. The new Factory had a strict entry policy, in stark contrast to the free-for-all nature of the original. The shooting instilled in Warhol a sense of vulnerability and led to increased security measures, and his focus shifted more towards the business side of art. He engaged in more commercial projects, including commissioned portraits for wealthy clients, and became more involved in Interview magazine. The sheer volume and experimental nature of Warhol's art production also saw a decline, both due to his physical and mental state. The post-shooting Factory symbolised the end of an era in New York's avant-garde art scene, as the social and creative dynamism of the 1960s gave way to a more cautious and commercially driven 1970s.

“Before the shooting, Andy hired rebellious heiresses like Edie, Brigid [Berlin] or street kids. Once Andy was shot, all that stopped. He weeded out many of the society kids, the amphetamine addicts and even gradually the drag queens. In the past there wasn’t really a strong bourgeois element. But from the early ’70s, and by the time we moved to Broadway, pretty much everyone he hired came out of college, from upper-middle-class families. Andy turned the Factory into a real business. There was health insurance. When I left, we had money in a pension plan.”
Bob Colacello

Reflections on Fame, Violence and Society

The assassination attempt is often viewed as a symbolic end to Warhol’s 1960s era of openness, experimentation, and radicalism. It highlighted the darker side of the counterculture movement and the potential for radical ideas to manifest in destructive ways. This incident, stark in its violence and abruptness, serves as a poignant reflection on the perilous nature of fame and artistic expression in modern society. Warhol’s life and work became a mirror reflecting society's fascination with celebrity culture, as well as the isolation and vulnerability that often accompany public life.

Moreover, the shooting and its aftermath speak volumes about the societal impact of violence. It illustrates how acts of aggression, fuelled by ideological or personal vendettas, can leave a permanent mark on individuals and communities. Warhol's subsequent shift towards a more intense artistic focus to themes of death and danger was not just a personal coping mechanism but also a commentary on his personal experience of society's desensitisation to violence.

The assassination attempt on Warhol was more than just a tragic event in the life of an iconic artist; it was a watershed moment that encapsulated the complexities of fame, the destructive potential of unchecked ideas, and the societal shifts of an era. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of human life and the profound impact that art and artists have on society and culture.

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