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Andy Warhol was good. He was very good. But the uncertainty lingers like an immortal Jeopardy question: Andy Warhol was very good at what?
Warhol has been labeled artist, celebrity, writer, filmmaker, jet setter, philosopher, icon. His work established an art movement and has been described as controversial, revolutionary, underground, unoriginal, and banal. A museum director once described Warhol as a serious artist who was all about the unserious.
Warhol’s inseparable life and work influenced the world of art and pop culture more than any other artist of his time, and his work remains one of the leading inspirations for following generations. His voluminous output included prints and paintings that have become as famous as the pop images on which they are based. He left us “Interview” magazine and the 451-page book “Andy Warhol’s Philosophy.” He left us the iconic image of blond wig and glasses as guru for succeeding generations.
A Celebrity is Born
So where was Andy Warhol born? He began life as Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest in a family of three sons. The Warholas resided in the working-class neighborhood of Oakland, a community of Eastern European families. His mother, Julia, was an embroiderer. His father, Ondrej, a construction worker, died in 1941.
Warhol’s art studies began at the age of six when he contracted chorea, a rare disease of the nervous system. His mother and brothers occupied him with lessons in drawing, tracing and printing. He also became absorbed in comic books, and decorated his room with the pictures of movie stars. His mother further instilled the creative process by giving him a camera when he was nine and setting up a makeshift darkroom in the basement.
After attending Holmes Elementary School and Schenley High School, Warhol enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later the Carnegie Mellon University). He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Pictorial Design in 1949, and then set his sights on fame and fortune in the Big Apple.
The 21-year-old moved to New York, dropped the “A” in his last name, and began his professional life as a commercial artist. His first paid work appeared in Glamour magazine in September 1949. Warhol’s approach to commercial design, using re-sourced images and photographs along with print processes he acquired in school, dazzled the hoi polloi of New York advertisers: Bonwit Teller, Columbia Records, Harper’s Bazaar, I. Miller Shoes, NBC, The New York Times, Tiffany & Co., and Vogue all engaged the hotshot designer from Pittsburgh (but he probably never told them where he was from).
He also utilized his mother’s stylized handwriting in some of this work”an early example of collaboration, albeit in the family. As his success grew, he hired assistants to increase his commercial art productivity. He retained the practice of collaboration and hired assistants during his later work as a visual artist.
By 1955, Warhol’s work concentrated more and more on photographic tracing and printing, assisted by Nathan Gluck. The Bodley Gallery held the first exhibition of Warhol’s work in 1956, composed of 15 drawings inspired by the writing of Truman Capote. The artist continued to work at his “fine art.”
Warhol’s first paintings based on pop culture icons, such as comic strips and advertisements, began in 1961 (the same year he learned silk screening). In April of that year, he placed five of those paintings in his window design for Bonwit Teller Department Store.
Soup is Good Controversy
Warhol claimed his first 15 minutes of fame”and then some”on July 9, 1962 when the Ferus Gallery (Los Angeles) hosted his first major exhibition. The show included a set of 32 canvases of Campbell’s Soup cans”one canvas for each soup variety offered by the manufacturer. Warhol used a semi-mechanized print process to permeate the work with an impersonal, mass-produced quality.
Life, Newsweek and Time magazine covered the show, and the soup cans in particular, which sparked controversy throughout the art world. One camp viewed the machine-like reproduction of commercial products as a cold slap in the face to the prevalent abstract impressionist movement. Critics also raised questions regarding the artist’s use of “assistants.” But another camp embraced the soup work as the new genre of “pop art”, named for its commentary on the pop culture of commercialism. They applauded the brilliance of creating an image of an image. Soup was good publicity and turned Warhol into a celebrity.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a pop art symposium in December of that year, where Warhol and other pop art brethren received fierce attacks for selling out art. Critics couldn’t accept Warhol’s celebration of commercialism, and their bitter judgments placed the artist at the forefront of the new movement.
Fueled by the notoriety, Warhol maintained his use of icons throughout 1962, producing celebrity portraits and a “death and disaster” series. (His major collaborator at the time was Gerald Malanga.) The best-known works from this period included images of Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, airplane crashes, a mushroom cloud and Marilyn Monroe.
More is More
Warhol remained artistically on the move throughout most of his career. He broke rapidly into other media through the rest of the 1960s.
He started making movies in 1963 and claimed a role in the avant-garde cinema. The best-known early works include Empire (1963), Sleep (1963), Kiss (1953-1964) and The Chelsea Girls (1966). Warhol’s film output approached 500 short “Screen Tests” from 1963-1966, and up to 100 longer works.
The first exhibition of Warhol sculptures took place in 1964, displaying hundreds of images taken from product boxes such as Heinz, Kellogg’s, and Brillo. As Warhol’s notoriety grew, his New York studio, dubbed “The Factory,” became the place to be and be seen. The country’s leading gossip columns turned in reports from The Factory, and Warhol began receiving coverage in the country’s top glossies, including Esquire, Newsweek and Time.
In 1965, Warhol became one of the first artists to display video art, claiming his love for its immediacy. His catalogue of videotapes eventually reached an estimated 2,500.
Later that year, during an exhibition in Paris for his “Flowers” paintings, Warhol announced his retirement from painting in order to pursue film-making “though the retirement lasted less than one year. He extended his reach into multimedia shows, played a critical role in managing Lou Reed’s rock and roll band The Velvet Underground, and opened a dance club featuring gymnasium equipment on its dance floor.
Warhol released his first mass-produced book in 1967, “Andy Warhol’s Index (Book).” His other written works, primarily transcribed from recordings, included “A, A Novel” (1968), “Blue Movie” (1967), and “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)” (1975).
Controversy struck Warhol on the level of life and death on June 3, 1968 when Valerie Solanas, a Factory associate, entered the studio armed with a loaded .32. She fired three times at Warhol and once at Mario Amaya, a visiting art critic and curator. Amaya suffered minor injury, but Warhol’s gunshot wound proved nearly fatal. Warhol was found to be clinically dead upon his arrival at the hospital. Emergency heart massage restored Warhol’s vital signs. He then underwent emergency surgery lasting five hours.
Warhol recovered in time to close the 1960s with the co-founding of Interview magazine, a testament of his dedication to fame and the famous.
Warhol took on numerous commissions for album cover designs in the 1970s. His 1971 “Sticky Fingers” cover for The Rolling stones received a Grammy Award nomination. He also maintained his socialite image throughout the decade. Art became life as he hobnobbed with subjects from his own work such as Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Truman Capote.
He became a regular fixture at New York’s premiere disco Studio 54, and he received hundreds of portraiture commissions from the rich and famous, or those wishing to be so.
Warhol also experimented in sculpture with the use of water, motion detectors and sirens. Applying metallic paint over urine, he created a series of “oxidation” paintings. He simultaneously worked on ideas for television and video.
Warhol continued to produce an immense amount of work throughout the decade, including iconic paintings of “Mao” and “Skulls,” his cardboard box series of “Time Capsules,” and one of his final painting series to be exhibited, “The Last Supper.”
The 1980s: more of the different & the end
Warhol appeared everywhere in the 1980s. MTV aired his TV shows, “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes” and “Andy Warhol’s TV.” He also created work for “Saturday Night Live,” appeared on “The Love Boat,” and produced rock band music videos. The Ford and Zoli modeling agencies signed Warhol, who appeared in numerous fashion shows as well as in television and print ads for Vidal Sassoon, TDK and Sony, among others.
Warhol continued his tradition of creative collaboration in the 1980s, this time working with young artists such as Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente and, notably, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Of significance, Warhol went back to the use of paintbrushes.
During a February 1987 exhibition of “The Last Supper” paintings in Milan, Warhol experienced severe abdominal pain. He eventually allowed doctors to check him into a hospital after returning to New York. He underwent what was termed “routine gall bladder surgery.” Despite an apparently successful operation, Warhol died in recovery on February 22, 1987.
Notices for the death of Warhol in The New York Times and The Washington Post were revealing for paying as much attention to his celebrity and cultural achievements as his artwork. Yoko Ono and Brigid Berlin provided readings at his burial on February 26. A memorial service was conducted in New York City on April Fools’ Day.
If Pablo Picasso is the father of 20th century art, then Warhol is his heir-apparent, bastard son. Picasso became the first artist-superstar of the industrial, mass-media age. He discovered the concept of artist as brand, and pursued that idea as an art. Warhol, a commercial-driven, fame-loving renegade, turned that concept of branded artist into a science.
Warhol defied explanation and understanding with ruthless purpose. He habitually confused, confounded and almost always entertained journalists, critics, scholars, and anyone else who gave him a public forum. In a 1966 interview for Cavalier, he claimed simply that artwork gave him something to do.
Andy Warhol was a mainstream radical, an establishment revolutionary, an underground superstar. Andy Warhol was a professional enigma whose pop art still pops.
Above all else, Andy Warhol was very good at being Andy Warhol.