Widely considered to be the father of Pop Art, Andy Warhol has influenced countless artists, designers and musicians and become an icon of the 20th century. Known as much for his look as his art, his name is synonymous with the celebrity culture and mass consumerism which came to define the American Dream.
Warhol’s work famously makes use of the silkscreen technique – which he adapted from commercial printing – to colour and repeat an original image multiple times. This led to the artist choosing to depict everyday consumer goods such as the Campbell’s Soup can and the Brillo Box – which were themselves multiplied ad infinitum on supermarket shelves – along with Hollywood stars and tragic news events, all in the same striking Pop Art style. Whether it’s a Marilyn, an Elvis or an Electric Chair, Warhol brought his unique vision to all facets of American society while at the same time embracing its many subcultures, creating a hub for muses, models and drag queens at the studio he set up in New York’s Midtown which became known as the Factory.
Whether it was managing the Velvet Underground, starting Interview magazine or filming himself eating a hamburger, Warhol knew how to make his fame last longer than the 15 minutes he predicted for everybody else. Not afraid of selling out, Warhol made a business out of being an artist and while he was hated by some for his success, he remained a darling of the art world until his death in 1987.
Andy Warhol was born on 6 August 1928 in Pittsburgh, USA, the fourth child of Austro-Hungarian emigrants. From a young age he showed promise as an artist and went on to study commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. In 1949 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Pictorial Design and moved to New York.
New York, New York
Warhol’s success did not happen overnight. He started out as a commercial illustrator, drawing shoes for Glamour magazine, and experimenting with printmaking techniques such as the ‘blotted line’ method, where the artist can create very quick prints by pressing paper on the still wet ink of a drawing, to make books that would showcase his skills to potential employers. In the late 50s he was introduced to the silk screen technique which would become the trademark of his work as a fine artist however these commercial beginnings are perhaps key to understanding Warhol’s love for consumer culture and the development of his art practice into a business. As the artist himself said, “buying is more American than thinking, and I’m as American as they come”.
Making a name
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. However when Irving Blum first held an exhibition of Warhol’s work, displaying the Campbell’s Soup canvases on grocery shelves in his Ferus Gallery in the early 60s, not everyone was amused. One art critic said of Warhol, “This young 'artist' is either a soft-headed fool or a hard-headed charlatan," and Willem de Kooning famously called him “a killer of beauty”. Despite this it wasn’t long until artists and influencers were clamoring for his prints which were made in large editions and sold for a fraction of what they can be bought for now.
Warhol was inspired 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, as well as Surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp and fellow Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. With his tongue in cheek subjects and brightly coloured silk screens Warhol sought to differentiate himself from the sombre formalism of Abstract Expressionism which had come to dominate the American post-war art world, proclaiming that, “the Pop artists [made] 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.”
Pop Art & Consumerism
Warhol’s early work was based primarily on advertisements and commercial design which targeted the majority rather than the affluent minority. Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo Boxes and Coca-Cola bottles became common motifs in Warhol’s iconography of consumerism and globalisation, and the mechanical silk-screening process meant prints could be churned out of the ironically named Factory almost as fast as the products themselves were made in the industrial complexes of the American sprawl. Over 85,000 editioned artworks are estimated to have been created by Warhol and his assistants during his career.
From 1962 Warhol became not so much an artist but a brand, creating endless multiples of images that were appealing to him because they were already widely known – and loved – by contemporary society, such as the Coca-Cola bottle, a symbol so resonant that he declared, “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 which in turn led to his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis Presley, among others. Rooted in the currency of fame and fortune, scandal and tragedy, these portraits became consumer products in their own right, unavoidable to the average American in the latter half of the 20th century and still widely known around the world today. This obsession with fame led Warhol to make perhaps his most well known statement that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," which some have read as his prescience about the proliferation of CCTV and social media leading to a lack of privacy in today’s world, as well as increased access to platforms on which the public can make a name for themselves.
Muses & Music
As well as becoming a production line for his prints, the Factory was a hub for the actors, writers, designers, musicians and models that formed Andy’s entourage. It was there that Warhol shot his films and took polaroids of the great and the good that would become his later portraits of New York figures such as Martha Graham, Grace Jones and Basquiat. In the 60s Warhol became manager of the Velvet Underground, whose album The Velvet Underground & Nico features his iconic banana cover art, and also founded the magazine Interview. Not all his hangers-on were fans however, and in 1968 Warhol was famously shot by writer and radical feminist Valerie Solanas while he was on the phone in the Factory. Through immersing himself in popular culture and the happenings and scandals of the 60s, Warhol developed an identity that blurred the lines between art and commerce, authorship and appropriation.
While he is largely seen as apolitical, Warhol's art also examined the society he lived in. With works such as Orange Car Crash, Electric Chair and Birmingham Race Riot the artist confronts the power structures and violence that lie at the root of the American Dream and often go ignored by a public who have been desensitised by the repetition of shocking images in the media. Meditating on the power of repetition Warhol stated that, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect”.
And though his soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles seem to celebrate the sunny side of consumerism, Warhol was also critiquing capitalism at its core, calling these household staples “impersonal products and brash materialist objects on which America is built today.” The artist also held leftwing political views and was active in the Democrats’ 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon, producing a poster that portrayed the Republican as a green-tinged Wicked Witch.
Warhol died in 1987 but his influence lives on in the work of contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami who have taken the mantle of Pop and combined it with a postmodern aesthetic while at the same time employing huge teams of assistants to set up a Factory-like production line of artworks. In this way Warhol was a pioneer of conceptual art, where the artist is only required to come up with ideas while at the same time reaping significant financial rewards, while the actual labour of making is outsourced to lower paid workers, heralding the fusion of art and capitalism.
On the market
Today Warhol remains one of the greats of the post-war era, with the demand and record prices for his work demonstrating the continued relevance of his work and the Pop Art movement to contemporary collectors. 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.”