Andy Warhol: The Original Influencer Artist

A diptych of portraits of Andy Warhol, close up to the camera. On the left, he is depicted in light blue and red; on the right, in orange and black. His lips are slightly parted and he is staring into the camera.Image © Creative Commons via Flickr / Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 2017
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Influencers are known for their mass following, lush brand deals, and celebrity-grade recognition. Their social status has afforded them entrepreneurial opportunities that have professionals in traditional work settings questioning if they need to make a career pivot into TikTok. While social media might have you thinking that this wave of influencing culture is a relatively new concept, the truth is that it has been built on the legacy of Andy Warhol. Warhol's approach to art and fame paved the way for modern influencer culture in several ways that continue to be seen today.

Advertisement of Life Savers in the style of Pop Art with a pink backgroundLife Savers (F. & S. II.353) © Andy Warhol 1985

Who was Andy Warhol?

While he’s most famously known for being the godfather of Pop Art, maybe we should begin recognising him as the godfather of influencer artists. Born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warhol hailed from a family of Slovakian immigrants. His formative years were coloured by a deep connection to his Eastern European heritage and a bout with Sydenham chorea. This ailment confined him to his bed for prolonged periods, where he would listen to the radio and nurture an ever-growing fascination with celebrities, drawing them repeatedly. This early brush with illness, combined with the artistic nurturing from his mother Julia, sowed the seeds of Warhol's future preoccupations with art and the allure of fame.

Warhol studied pictorial design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and landed his first gig working in advertising. With his illustrations gracing the pages of renowned publications like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, he knew that celebrities could be used to sell things with their influence alone. Pairing the role the media played in promoting products and the idea of celebrity itself with the new boom in consumerism, Warhol managed to carve out his own niche in the art world by launching Pop Art.

You can learn more about Andy here.

Andy Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles. Repetitive rows of green Coca-Cola bottles in Warhol’s popular advertisement style Pop Art.Image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Green Coca-Cola Bottles © Andy Warhol 1962

Warhol and The Birth of Pop Art

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s in the United States there was a flourishing culture of consumerism thanks to the mass media’s production of popular advertising. The economy was also growing, and Americans were enthusiastic to spend more with their increased earnings and availability of new products since the war.

Everyday items like soda, canned goods, and cleaning products turned into popularised brand names in virtually every household. Coca-Cola was a common product that found people from all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds drawn to it–everyone had a personal relationship with Coke. Warhol took these mass produced, everyday items and turned them into the subjects of his work. By mimicking advertising’s commercial style, Warhol ended up creating an entirely new genre of art.

Pop Art was the response and reflection of the effects of consumer culture and mass media in America. It defied traditional ideas of what fine art was, blurring the lines between high and low culture; essentially, Warhol managed to capture the essence of consumerism on canvas. Bold colours, repetition and celebrity were all common themes in his work, used to highlight the allure of fame while commodifying it and setting a precedent for modern day influencers to follow.

The artist’s appeal and influence was just as important as the art itself. His only competitor at the time would be major advertising companies, and nobody wanted to collect newspaper clippings – they wanted a Warhol.

“The good purchaser devoted to ‘more, newer and better’ was the good citizen since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.”
Lizabeth Cohen, Professor of American Studies, Harvard University

Warhol's Influence on the 1960s Art Scene

Warhol was one of the first artists to understand the power of celebrity. He recognised that celebrity’s status could be used to promote his art and ideas, an easy task considering how much public exposure and power celebrities had at that time. He created popular portfolios of work based on celebrities, such as his silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Kennedy.

Warhol was one of the first artists to manipulate the medium of mass media and turn it into its own sub-genre of Pop Art. Warhol’s famous Ads series created original art explicitly by American consumerism and mass media advertisements.

One of his most iconic series, Campbell’s Soup Cans helped to cement Warhol as the pioneer in Pop Art. The series displayed the visual results of his background and approach to advertising, his iconography of the soup can, and his way of mimicking mass production through his own screen printing technique.

Warhol's impact on the 1960s art scene was profound as he defied the conventional boundaries between fine art and mass culture, elevating ordinary subjects to the realm of high art. His distinctive style of repetition, bright colours, and screen-printing became synonymous with the Pop Art movement. His revolutionary approach inspired a generation of artists to explore the convergence of art, consumerism, and popular culture. His influence shaped artistic dialogue, opening doors to new forms of artistic expression that remain relevant and influential even in the present day.

Warhol as a Celebrity and Cultural Icon

As his career grew, Warhol became not just an observer of celebrity and culture but an embodiment of it. He was a visionary who recognised and harnessed the power of fame, crafting an enigmatic persona that merged his life and art in a fascinating way. He was a nexus of cultural innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, orchestrating gatherings of diverse artistic figures at his New York City studio The Factory. This space went beyond just a studio, acting as a hub of creativity and avant-garde experimentation. At The Factory, Warhol blurred the boundaries between different art forms, fostering a vibrant synergy between visual art, music, film and performance. It was in that same factory that the unlikely pair of Warhol and Basquiat began their budding collaborations and friendship.

Not many artists, let alone influencers, can say they designed an album cover for The Rolling Stones. To no surprise, Warhol can. By this point in his career, he was no longer recognised as an experimental “wannabe”, but revered by his peers for his innovation and unique approach. Collaborating with The Rolling Stones was not his first encounter designing album covers. Warhol's celebrity played a large role in driving the high demand for his cover art from artists like powerhouse vocalist Aretha Franklin and Hollywood starlet Liza Minnelli. His repertoire included covers for The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Love You Live, Diana Ross’ Silk Electric, and The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, to name a few.

What’s fame without fortune? Maybe the real evidence of just how significant Andy was in the art scene is his performance in the art world. Warhol continues to be top-performing Blue-chip artist in the secondary and print market, making him one of the most desirable, and profitable artists to invest in.

Why Andy Warhol retrospective has special resonance in the Instagram age © PBS News Hour on Youtube

Social Proof of Warhol's Impact on Modern Influencer Culture

Warhol's approach to art and fame not only left a mark on the art world but also laid the foundation for modern influencer culture. Current digital media influencers could only dream of reaching the heights he was able to reach. At best, many macro influencers are able to secure brand endorsement deals and partnerships, receive free items or services, or even leverage their marketing knowledge into a full-time corporate role. We have yet to see any launch their own magazine that’s still in circulation!

Warhol founded Interview Magazine in 1969. As if creating his own editorial masterpiece wasn’t enough, Warhol easily enlisted the support of his famous friends to be featured in his magazine– another perk of his own personal celebrity and influence. The magazine covers creativity across all genres, including film, music, and fashion. Warhol provided his own platform for artists, celebrities, and cultural icons to share their stories and ideas, long before this was even considered probable in the social media landscape.

Have you ever heard the expression “fifteen minutes of fame”? Warhol might be credited for that. From 1985 to 1987, MTV aired Warhol’s own talk show, 15 Minutes of Fame. This essentially doubled down on his magazine by introducing the same content his fanbase already enjoyed, but in the form of video content. In the present day, this would be considered as part of Warhol’s overall content marketing strategy, popularising video content and placing it at the forefront of social media currency.

Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes of Fame Trailer

Andy Warhol's Enduring Legacy as an Influencer Artist

Warhol's legacy as an influential artist continues to resonate in the art world and popular culture. His groundbreaking work and unique artistic approach have left a lasting impression on subsequent generations of artists. His exploration of celebrity culture played a large role in foreshadowing the rise of social media and influencer culture.

While many modern-day influencers claim to be supporters of historically underrepresented communities, it is often only a display of performative allyship, with no substantial, tangible support. Warhol’s foundation for the visual arts proceeds to pay it forward by offering grants and opportunities for rising artists, helping to combat the marginalisation of artists. In what ways have you witnessed Andy’s legacy in the influencer space? Share your experience with us on LinkedIn.

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