Andy Warhol changed the way we look at the world, and the way the world looks at art. With his exhaustive observation of cultural trends, from his rise to Pop art fame in the early 1960s up until his death in 1987, he identified the images and aesthetics shaping the consumer-driven postwar American experience, and transformed what he saw into a sophisticated yet accessible body of work. He invented new ways of image making, vastly expanding what was considered fine art, and also a new kind of artist, one who merged art and life, and treated painting, photography, filmmaking, writing, publishing, advertising, branding, performance, video, television, digital media—and even his own persona—as equally valid terrain for creative experimentation. Often lost in his own celebrity and myth is the fact that he is widely considered one of the most important postwar artists of the 20th century.
“Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh to Julia and Andrej Warhola, Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants and devout Byzantine Catholics who had fled poverty and war in current-day Slovakia. Although his childhood was economically impoverished by many standards, Warhol’s talent was well-nourished. As a child, he was struck with a nervous-system disorder that left him homebound for months, during which time his mother furnished him with art supplies, as well as comic books and movie magazines—the grist of future fixations. He attended free art classes at the Carnegie Museum, and was the first in his family to go to college, earning a degree in Pictorial Design from the Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949, and establishing a reputation as a talented non-conformist along the way.
Warhol moved to New York City at age 21 hoping to succeed as a commercial designer. His success was swift: Within days he was illustrating stylish women’s shoes for a spread in Glamour magazine, and by 1952 he had won his first of many industry awards. Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Co., and Columbia Records are among the many prestigious firms that kept him flush through the 1950s.
As he courted clients on Madison Avenue and busily navigated the social geography of Manhattan’s fashion world and urbane gay community, Warhol continued making art. He developed a distinctive language of lively motifs—cherubs, butterflies, cats, shoes, food, elegant women, young men kissing—often collaborating with writers to produce artist’s books, which were among the many objects he’d gift to friends and colleagues over the years.
Warhol’s fashionable sought-after style looked different than other illustrations, characterized by his jagged “blotted line,” which he achieved by pressing paper to a wet ink drawing to create a blotchier duplicate. As curator Donna De Salvo has pointed out, the duplicate looked simultaneously handmade and mass-produced – an appealing duality long at the core of Warhol’s aesthetic. That simple form of printing foreshadowed the radical experiments with silkscreening that he’d use to forever transform the look and feel of painting.
By the late 1950s, Warhol had earned enough as an illustrator to purchase a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and to fill it with American antiques and folk art. He also began collecting work by his contemporaries, including Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, and Frank Stella, whose vanguard ranks he aspired to join. Although a regular visitor to the city’s progressive galleries, where Pop Art was beginning to percolate, Warhol was also somewhat of an art world outsider—“too swish,” as he later described, for the more discreetly gay social circle of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Neither his homoerotic drawings nor his comic-book inspired images caught on, and Warhol faced a number of rejections from dealers. But his Campbell Soup Cans were a different story. When dealer Irving Blum of the cutting-edge Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles spotted the paintings during a studio visit, he offered Warhol a solo exhibition on the spot. He created 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans for the 1962 show, each a different variety, hand-painted to mimic the uniformity of mass production. He described the canvases as “portraits”—a genre he’d continue to explore in depth for the next 35 years.
“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)
In his hunt to capture the look and feel of commercialized postwar America, Warhol began experimenting with the tools of mechanical reproduction, namely, the photo-silkscreening technique. He quickly invented what would become his signature style–a grainy black image printed repeatedly–in series, grids, rows, or pairs–on painted canvas often strikingly colored. It was a game-changing artistic breakthrough, for him and for future artists, legitimizing the commercial method for use in fine art.
In 1963, with his painting practice expanding, Warhol moved his studio from a rented firehouse to a fifth-floor loft on East 47th Street that once housed a hat factory. He christened the space the Factory, covered all its surfaces in silver, and watched it morph into a hive of countercultural activity. Although infamous for its louche and drug-fueled parties, the Factory was the site of enormous creative productivity. Warhol purchased his first movie camera in 1963 and kept it rolling, innovating unprecedented genres of filmmaking, like the silent, moving portraits of his Screen Tests (1963–66) and the eight-hour single shot of Empire (1964), and inventing a new kind of celebrity, the untrained actor-turned-Superstar.
Amid all the cinematic output, Warhol was also producing art day and night. He set up an assembly line type of system that could replicate the uniformity and seriality of mass production and enlisted Factory hands in the process of silkscreening dozens of product cartons and celebrity portraits. While he famously told Artnews in 1963 that “the reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine,” every canvas Warhol silkscreened was unique, the result of creative decisions concerning composition, format, and color.
The public first encountered Warhol’s Factory-made works in 1964, in an exhibition at New York’s Stable Gallery, which he transformed into a grocery storeroom with narrow rows of stacked silkscreened Brillo Boxes and other “cartons.” Crowds lined up to see the show, but the works barely sold. They did, however, convince several influential critics of Warhol’s artistic import, including Arthur Danto, who went on to champion him as one of the 20th century’s great cultural catalysts. Warhol’s work declared once and for all that art shall no longer be defined by traditional conventions.
If his grocery cartons telegraphed the fabricated exuberance of consumerism, Warhol’s celebrity portraits and “Death and Disasters” (1963–64) revealed a darker side of the American Dream. Images of Elizabeth Taylor painted when she was ill in the hospital; Marilyn Monroe, just months after her suicide; and Jackie Kennedy, shortly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination all magnified the mass media’s unseemly yet seductive celebrity worship and fascination with human suffering. His concurrent Car Crashes, Suicides, Electric Chairs, and Race Riot paintings appropriated grisly images from tabloids and magazines, amplifying the media’s normalization of tragedy. As he told ARTnews in 1963, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.”
Photography was fundamental to the way Warhol saw the world, and the way he made art. The moving image was equally vital to his artistic practice — so much so, that in 1965 he announced his retirement from painting to focus on filmmaking. From 1963 through ’68 he produced nearly 650 underground films. His first commercial success, The Chelsea Girls (1966), an unedited glimpse into the daily lives of several Superstars, is considered an influential forerunner of reality TV.
Always open to experimenting with unconventional artistic formats, Warhol turned his attention in 1966 to the band the Velvet Underground, directing their live performances as a psychedelic multi-media show with special light and film effects, and producing their first album. He remained engaged with the music industry, in one form or another, for the rest of his life.
He also returned to portraiture, plunging into the lucrative business of painting private commissions through the 1970s and ‘80s. Hundreds of sitters — from wealthy patrons and celebrities to other noteworthy subjects, including fellow artists, transgender models (Ladies and Gentlemen, 1975), and athletes (1977-79) — posed for Warhol’s Polaroid Big Shot, whose instamatic photos the artist translated into paint.
Between portrait commissions, European film shoots, and international exhibition openings, Warhol was at the center of a star-studded crowd as he made his way from dinner tables in Paris, Rome, and the White House to cocktail tables at Studio 54. If the look and feel of that chapter of the 20th century is embedded in the public imagination, it’s in part because Warhol routinely chronicled it. He had several love interests over his lifetime, but his most steadfast “date,” as he called it, was his camera. He kept a Polaroid close for decades — snapping shots of everything, including himself, in dozens of self-portraits that foreshadow the selfie phenomenon. In 1976, he acquired the first of several compact 35 mm cameras, and over the next 11 years shot around 130,000 black-and-white images, claiming that “having a few rolls of film to develop gives me a good reason to get up in the morning.”
Warhol likened picture-taking to keeping a “visual diary.” He also tape-recorded around 4,000 hours of conversations throughout his lifetime, and in the 1970s began keeping a written diary and videotaping segments of his studio practice called “Factory Diaries.” In 1974, he began pushing this archival impulse even further with the first of more than 600 “Time Capsules” — cartons filled regularly with select bits of detritus and ephemera from the studio, including correspondence, receipts, newspapers, photographs, and souvenirs.
This exhaustive diaristic activity reveals an artist who was continuously observing the world around him, and finding the fleeting and insignificant as worthy of recording as the spectacularly glamorous — something he’d made clear in his earlier days of painting Soup Cans and Marilyns. But his desire to preserve the ephemeral was also prophetic, uncannily anticipating today’s compulsion to chronicle life on social media.
For all the notorious hedonism of Warhol’s 1970s social scene, he had returned to painting with renewed vitality. The Factory’s “business art” provided a steady income, which freed him to experiment, starting with the subversive Mao series (1972–73). He made nearly 200 paintings of the Chinese Communist leader appropriated from a widely circulated official portrait, including several wall-size versions. Warhol embellished each image with garish colors and droll markings that undercut the political propaganda’s formality with a flamboyance befitting a celebrity, and also invoked the gestural forms of Abstract Expressionism. Warhol had distanced himself from abstraction early on, but as the ‘70s unfolded, he kept finding radical new ways to re-think it. He made his Piss and Oxidations (1977), for instance, by urinating on canvases coated with metallic-based paint which produced beautiful iridescent tones of green, gray, and copper. The abject process took aim at the sanctity of Jackson Pollock’s gestural splatters and drips — but it also signaled that Warhol was, as always, hyperaware of awareness of the era’s rising punk-rock tide.
In one of his most monumental and complex series, Shadows (1978–79), Warhol figured out how to present an image that was completely representational yet entirely abstract (something he’d do again in the ‘80s with his Camouflage and Rorschach paintings). The “subject” was a shadow that had been cast by an unidentified object in his studio, photographed and then silkscreened onto 102 canvases, each painted a vibrant hue and arranged edge to edge. The project had been commissioned by the adventurous dealer Heiner Friedrich (who later founded Lone Star/Dia Art Foundation), and proved, among other things, that Warhol didn’t need the power of popular imagery to mesmerize viewers.
Warhol continued expanding his artistic vision, as changing tastes and technology reshaped culture in the 1980s. He made music videos, created computer art, and produced experimental television shows that merged the fashion, entertainment, and art world (including Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which aired on MTV). Open to the vibrant new forms emerging from the East Village art scene in the 1980s, Warhol teamed up with young painter Jean Michel-Basquiat (who would become a close friend) to collaborate on a series that combined his readymade iconography of logos with the rising star’s graffiti-style expressionism.
The year before his death, Warhol’s independent studio practice remained as prolific and zeitgeist-tapping as ever. In 1986, he painted more than 100 works related to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which some have read as complex reckoning of his homosexuality, Catholicism, and mortality in response to witnessing AIDS devastate the gay community
Warhol died unexpectedly in February 1987 from complications following routine gallbladder surgery. He was just 58. Thousands attended his mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Death had long fascinated Warhol — even before his own near-death experience in 1968. We see it in his Marilyns and 13 Most Wanted, in his Skulls and Last Suppers. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he mused: “I don’t believe in it, because you’re not around to know that it’s happened. I can’t say anything about it because I’m not prepared for it.” But in a way, Warhol had prepared for it. In his will he called for the creation of a foundation dedicated to “the advancement of the visual arts.” In doing so, he ensured that future generations would keep pushing art in radical new directions — and that his death would be a starting point rather than an ending.
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