Andy Warhol (born Andrew Warhola) is a name synonymous with the celebrity culture and mass consumerism which coloured the boulevards of New York City in the Post World War II era. Born into a working class immigrant family in the urban landscape around the bustling metropolis, Warhol’s early life was characterised by a climb up the capitalist rungs of society.
The artist himself noted, “buying is more American than thinking, and I’m as American as they come”, this quote came to demarcate Warhol’s artistic practice as he embraced the commodification of the American Dream. The Pop artist’s beginnings in the business sector gave him the practical skillset to experiment with a more commercial approach to art throughout his career, particularly with regards to screen printing.
A string of exhibitions in the 1950s paved the way for Warhol’s success, beginning with his first solo show at the Hugo Gallery in New York in 1952 entitled, Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote. Influenced by the Neo Dada group (which included the artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) who prided themselves in working within the gap between art and life, Warhol sought to differentiate himself from the Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American cultural scene in the years after World War II. However, rather than championing the underbelly of the city like Rauschenberg, Warhol celebrated consumerist culture, proclaiming that, “the Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second … all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” Further, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton branded Pop Art as, “popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.”
The effect of the capitalist boom in the 1950s continues to resonate in the modern era, Warhol’s art echoing through time and space as society remains consumed by popular culture.
Pop Art is best known for its industrial technique, which typified Warhol’s practice of the 1960s. His early art was based primarily on advertisements which targeted the majority rather than the affluent minority which previous art movements had focused on. Campbell’s Soup Cans, Brillo Boxes and Coca-Cola Bottles became common motifs in Warhol’s early practice, celebrating the democratisation of Capitalism, and the mechanical silk-screening process meant prints and sculptures were churned out at an alarming rate. Warhol opened The Factory in 1962, coupling his artistic genius with his desire to become a machine. As a result, such commercial objects became increasingly depersonalised. Warhol explained his ethos with regards to his Coca-Cola series:
“A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
Warhol’s obsession with consumerism fed into his preoccupation with celebrity culture, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis Presley becoming staples in The Factory’s output. Such portraits were consumer products in their own right, unavoidable to the average American in the latter half of the 20th century. Such infatuation with Hollywood stardom began in childhood. Compared with Warhol’s upbringing in the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hollywood emitted glamour and oozed fame. For a Czech immigrant from a relatively impoverished background, Hollywood represented the pinnacle of social mobility, a chance to break out of the mould which once determined social structure for the generations before.
Curator of film at Tate Modern, Stuart Comer, believes that Warhol’s celebrated statement, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” shows how:
“He understood that the Hollywood studio system was giving way to something where far more people were going to be on camera and on screen. Now, on CCTV cameras, we're all filmed and photographed thousands of times a day. Warhol realised that we were becoming more than bodies – we were becoming images. The way that we all became part of the media machine is something that he understood very early.”
Warhol used silk-screen printed images to disseminate celebrity culture to the masses, exemplified in works such as the multiple Marilyn Monroe silkscreen prints (1967) and Double Elvis(1963). He was essentially integrated into the public consciousness, The Factorybecoming a central hub for the rich and famous of New York City. For instance, musician Lou Reed of the band The Velvet Underground, whose song Walk on the Wild Side included verses which alluded to the individuals who frequented Warhol’s studio, such as Candy Darling, ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ Joe Campbell and Jackie Curtis. Through immersing himself in popular culture, Warhol’s aesthetic was permeated by the celebrity, fusing his identity with that of the city’s most distinguished inhabitants. Warhol blurred the authorship of his art from the 1960s onwards, resulting in the mass production which was integral to the artist’s intention to question ‘what makes art, art?’, an idea first coined by his predecessor Marcel Duchamp.
Analogous to such works, Warhol’s art also examined the darker side of Capitalism. Whilst Warhol’s repetitious sequences of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy attests to how mass circulation of images can dull a shocking event, works such as Orange Car Crash(1963) and Electric Chair(1964) are a more confronting depiction of our own mortality. The artist continued to develop this contextual vein, remarking, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect,” referencing how we have become accustomed to the oversaturation of media which strives to create morbid curiosity.
Whilst in preceding decades, Warhol had spoken out against Abstract Expressionism and condemned its eclectic market approach, his later works somewhat pay homage to its style. The OxidationPaintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s explore an abstract style, but Warhol continues to embody a satirical take on the status of art. Created by urinating onto a copper-painted canvas, Warhol fabricated a metallic sheen which straddles the boundary between the abject and the sublime. According to Warhol confidant, Bob Colacello, the artist created this series as a parody of Jackson Pollock’s large-scale action paintings. In multiple works, Warhol chooses to parody the Abstract Expressionists, Rorschach(1984) commenting on how abstract images cause people to project their own ideas onto the picture plane rather than project the artist’s own intentions.
Warhol permanence within the art historical canon is seen in how contemporary artists utilise his practices. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami are three examples of artists who have removed themselves from the physical labour involved in producing art. Warhol championed the idea that the artist can be ‘the idea man’ rather than also responsible for the paint on the canvas. In response to Warhol’s proclamation that he thinks of himself as a machine in a 1963 interview with the art critic G.R. Swenson, art historian Thomas Crow postulated that, “he is responding to more than the levelling effects of American consumer culture. His more specific concern is rather the meanings normally given to the difference between the abundant material satisfactions of the capitalist West and the relative deprivation and limited personal choices of the Communist East.” Warhol represents the beginning of global consumerism, celebrating the endeavours of Capitalism, particularly in contrast with Communist states.
Warhol remains the artistic cornerstone of the Post-War era, the prices reached for his work today demonstrate the artist’s relevance in contemporary society. As Warhol himself put it, “Once you 'got' pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought pop, you could never see America the same way again.”