Andy Warhol, one of the biggest influencers in the pop art movement, forever shifted the purpose of art, by proving that art could be anything from a celebrity icon portrait to a painting of a household product. He began his career at a time when art was often associated with realism and beautiful objects, and he did quote the opposite by infusing beauty in the day to day things.
Andy Warhol was born in 1928, in Pennsylvania, to a mother who had a shared passion for drawing and creating. Growing up, Warhol suffered from Chorea – a neurological disorder that impacts the face, shoulders, and hips – which kept him home from school for numerous days. This left Warhol often alone, to escape into his made up world inspired by comic books and photographs. From a young age he would watch his mom draw, and use art as an outlet for his pain and inner thoughts. His health struggles lead him to develop a unique sense of style and fascination for masking his personal appearance, using himself as an expression of art. He quickly became recognizable for evolving his looks throughout the decades by trying new clothing, wigs, and makeup. He treated his body as a personal extension of his artwork. Warhol made his mark on the art world through his duality: as both an artist and a businessman. He was one of the first artists of his time to see the blatant cross yet clash between advertising and fine art- and reinvented the way viewers define what art is.
Although Warhol is strongly linked with the Pop Art movement, he truly believed that art should not be defined by a time or concept- but rather that art should create a new feeling and movement every time. He shared on this idea, “You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something… I think that would be so great, to be able to change stylers. And I think that’s what’s going to happen, that’s going to be the whole new scene.” Warhol was always able to capture the future and change people’s outlooks on art, reminding us that art is not defined by a category, but rather the one’s interpretation of the work in the moment.
While at Carnegie Mellon University, Warhol studied pictorial design, which influenced the linear quality of his early works, as well as his early career path in advertising. One of Warhol’s earliest drawings can be found in an article written for Glamour Magazine titled, “Success Is A Job in NYC.” The title coincidentally captured the period Warhol was in, making art his full time job and striving for success. He drew a simple linear drawing of a woman climbing a ladder, embodying the whimsical feeling that is prevalent in many of Warhol’s beginning drawings. His early works often were inspired by his mother, who was an artist herself, and would finish his drawings with cursive slogans written atop. One of his earliest subject matters that remained a recurrent theme in his works was shoes. His first depictions of shoes were small sketches that featured various 1950 heels and boots styles with quotes written under such as, “When I’m Calling Shoe” and “My Shoe Is Your Shoe.” During this period Warhol perfected his blotted line technique, in which he would apply ink on paper and move the ink around while it was still wet. This was also the start to his silkscreen printmaking technique, which revolutionized the way Warhol created and sold art. The subject matter of this period was very directly based on a word of advice Warhol received early on from an art teacher. The teacher shared the opposite of what we normally hear: reminding Warhol to paint what pleased him rather than other people. She shared that artists should only paint the things they like- leading Warhol to draw his favorite everyday items including shoes, coke cans, and cats.
During the 1960s, Warhol created some of his most iconic works and opened his debut pop art exhibition. Warhol’s fascination with typical American objects and figures such as Coca Cola and Campbell’s Tomato Soup led him to presenting them to his audience in an creative manner. He redefined the concept of what art had to be, creating excitement directly based on popular culture. On the creation of the soup can, Warhol shares, “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing. And the soup can was it.” This mindset was exactly what made Warhol such an impactful artist; he was able to take a simple household object and completely add immense value to it simply by shifting perception. Warhol’s ability to have viewers attribute the same respect to a soup can painting as they would of a celebrity icon accomplished Warhol’s ambition to mesh the boundaries between high and low culture. During this time Warhol also created his first rendition of the Flower Series, shortly after his Disasters Series, creating a stark contrast between the two messages and moods. The Flowers hinted at innocence and played off the term “Flower Power” often used in the 1960s to reflect the non-violence movement. At first site these works may appear to be simply decorative art, but Warhol left a lot of meaning behind the choice to depict the flowers in such a colorful, pop format.
Warhol created a whole culture around his art, connecting creatives through his studio, “The Factory.” The original location of The Factory first opened in 1962, in Midtown NYC. This spot also was nicknamed The Silver Factory, as it was covered in tin foil and silver paint. The Factory became known for its wild parties, and being a hub for artists and musicians to create. The Factory as been described as, “every walk of life, from the most beautiful people to other artists, celebrities, musicians. It really was the center of creativity in the late ‘60s in New York City.”
It was also during the late 1960s that Warhol created his iconic Marilyn Monroe series, making her the first subject of his screen printing technique. Warhol felt a sense of comfort in repetition, sharing “the more you look at the same thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”
The 1970s proved to be a much quieter time in Warhol’s life, partially as a result of him being shot in the late 60’s, compromising both his health and safety. During this time Warhol really magnified the business aspect to his art, and grew the pool of recognizable faces to paint. Warhol also came back to his famous Flower Series, but this time creating them as prints, appearing more flattened and fictional. This whimsical tone proved to be one of the lighter works that Warhol created. Warhol also founded Interview Magazine at the turn of the 70s, a magazine which provided a window into the lives of models, musicians, and artists. The magazine soon became nicknamed “The Crystal Ball of Pop” and acted similarly as celebrity social media accounts act today as a closer interaction with celebrities personal lives. Warhol even indicated the current pop culture climate by sharing that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Quite literally to the magazine’s name, Warhol would interview cultural icons and ask them anything from what they ate for breakfast to deep, thought provoking questions. This was yet another way for Warhol to bridge the gap between high and low culture.
One of Warhol’s most famous portraits of Mao Tse Tung was created in 1972 and sparked controversy on Warhol’s political point of view. When asked about it, Warhol shared that he sided with no party, and even went to vote once, but got too scared to make a final decision. He did not view his political portrait creations as statements, but rather looked at these figures the same way he would an household object painting. This decade was also defined by world travel for Warhol, inspiring him to take polaroid portrait photos at each destination, and then taking them back to NYC where he would bring them to life. Some of his most well known travels inspired his wide portfolio of figures, including the Queen Elizabeth Series, Jews of the 21st Century Series, and Lenin Series.
By the 1980s Warhol became recognized as a cultural celebrity himself, associating with musical icons from the Beatles and famous models including Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor. Much of Warhol’s works from his final decade were commissioned works, as by this point he had a distinctive style and audience of buyers. Beyond his painting and prints, Warhol was also fascinated with moving image since as early as the 1960s. He was often seen with a camera strapped around his neck, seeing photography and video as the next step in the art world. By the 1980s he got the opportunity to star in his own show on MTV, “Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes”, which featured him interacting with a mix of cultural icons including Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Paloma Picasso. In only five episodes Warhol was able to feature 100 guests, mirroring his vast variety of people featured in his artworks. Warhol also created a series of self portraits, the year prior to his death. Prior to this series, Warhol shied away from showing his face head on in his works, but this time around he recognized that his own face was now an icon as well.
“Art is anything you can get away with” – Andy Warhol