Andy Warhol and his paintings
In 1945 Warhol entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he majored in painting and design and received a rather unconventional artistic education. While in school, he worked part-time as a window dresser for a number of department stores, making his earliest contacts with what would become the principal environment of his activity, namely the world of consumption and advertising. In 1948-49 he submitted, as an official entry at the annual show of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, his painting The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose, which, after being turned down by the admission committee, was eventually shown in some alternative exhibition space. Even as a boy, Warhol had been intrigued by the possibility of changing his identity, and that work, despite the obvious humor of the title, was evidence of how deeply dissatisfied he was with his own appearance. (In 1950 Warhol began wearing the first of his trademark wigs, and, in 1957, he elected to undergo plastic surgery.)
In the summer of 1949, after graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol left Pittsburgh for New York in the company of his friend the artist Philip Pearlstein. The move marked the starting point of an entirely new existence: Andrew Warhola died and from his ashes Andy Warhol rose. In New York, he worked as a free-lance commercial artist for such well-known magazines as Glamour, Vogue, The New Yorker, and Harper's Bazaar, for retail stores such as Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman, and Bonwit Teller; and, most notably, for the I. Miller shoe company. Thus he achieved a long-coveted financial security. His work began to obtain a certain recognition, and in 1952 his first solo exhibition, "Andy Warhol: Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote," was held at an art gallery in Manhattan. This event marked the beginning of a countless series of rewards, and gradually his dreams began to come true.
After securing a formidable reputation in the advertising world as an illustrator, Warhol in 1960 undertook to change his professional identity from that of commercial artist to practitioner of the fine arts. Among his first efforts
upon his return to painting were works in oil with comic strip characters as their theme. To his amazement, in 1961 he found out that another young artist, Roy Lichtenstein, had been working on the same idea, with more successful
results. Warhol quickly abandoned his comic-strip paintings.
Just as Warhol's output as an illustrator would eventually infiltrate the art of the avant-garde—with which, unlike the average graphic artist, he was very familiar—his paintings were deeply influenced by such commercial techniques as mass production. In 1961, five of his cartoon paintings were hung as a sort of backdrop in a window display at the Bonwit Teller department store. The following year saw the emergence of some of Warhol's most recognizable themes: the Campbell's Soup cans and the Disasters, as well as the portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, which marked the beginning of his experimentation with screen-printing techniques.
At the same time, Warhol was developing a growing interest in films, and in 1963—the year of Sleep—he tried his hand at moviemaking. For Warhol, the chief interest of cinema, as well as of photography, lay in its immediacy. Moreover, both techniques required only a minimal intervention on the part of the artist: the real work was done by the camera and the subject.
In 1963, Warhol moved his studio to 231 East 47th Street, in what would soon become known as the Factory. Warhol's metamorphosis, and its significance for the history of art, was spectacular: from individual independent artist to head of a factory of art-workers who were able to churn out works as from an assembly line. "The reason I'm painting this way," he once said, "is that I want to be a machine." Aided by his assistants and associates, Warhol proceeded to gather around himself a sort of Renaissance court that enabled him to keep up the high output necessary to meet his financial needs. Nonetheless he always remained open to outside suggestions.
More than a mere workplace, the Factory was transformed by theatrical lighting designer Billy Name into a sort of all-encompassing fantasy world of aluminum foil and metallic silver paint. This truly amazing place was visited by all manners of people, from students and young artists to actors, rock stars, and transvestites, and soon the Factory became one of the trendiest gathering places for the "in" crowd and the center of New York's cultural universe.
The year 1966 marked the beginning of his close collaboration with the musical group The Velvet Underground, as the two staged multimedia "happenings" in New York and California. Two years later, the radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot the artist in an assassination attempt. Severely wounded by the gunshot, which ricocheted in his body, Warhol spent almost two months in the hospital.
After the 1960s Warhol's output skyrocketed with frequent incursions into virtually every artistic field. Soon his own celebrity began to eclipse that of his portrait subjects, as he traveled in the company of socialites, movie stars, and rock-and-roll stars. Warhol's work from the 1970s and 1980s was of a much more painterly nature than before; his brushwork had become more expressive and visually more complex, adding a certain vitality to the coldness of the silkscreen medium.
His career experienced one final major twist as he turned toward the most abstract works of his entire production with such series as his Oxidation Paintings, Shadows, Egg Paintings, and Threads. On February 22, 1987, following the surgical removal of his gallbladder, Warhol died in a New York hospital. His death marked the end not only of a great artist but of an era. The funeral was held in the artist's native Pittsburgh.
Andy Warhol has been called a mirror of his age. And indeed, Warhol's oeuvre — from his early graphic work to his exaltation of such commonplace items as Campbell's Soup cans to his celebrity to his seven-hour long film of the Empire State Building — closely reflects the America of his time. For the artist's critics, his work constitutes the quintessential paradigm of the frivolousness and banality of that period. To be sure, Warhol intentionally cultivated a somewhat trivial image, one that he reinforced:"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." Yet few artists have had a greater impact on the world of art, and even fewer have ever achieved the kind of personal celebrity that Warhol enjoyed.
Indeed, Andy Warhol can be viewed as the perfect embodiment of the American Dream, the self-made man who successfully overcomes an impoverished upbringing to become a millionaire. Warhol personifies a new type of star, at once creator, producer, actor, and — last but not least — brilliant businessman. In fact, for Warhol, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art," according to another of his famous aphorisms.
Andy Warhol almost single-handedly modernized our aesthetic tradition. As far as both themes and mediums are concerned, Warhol was at the origin, or at least he became a symbol of a momentous transformation in contemporary painting. Even without almost ever resorting to ready-mades—he did indeed sign some cans of Campbell's Soup — Warhol challenged, more than any other Pop artist, the traditional conventions pertaining to the uniqueness, authenticity, and authorship of the work of art. He completed the process of dissolution of easel painting that had been initiated by the Abstract Expressionists, whose break with tradition was admittedly not as radical as Warhol's. Unlike such idealistic artists as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, or Barnett Newman, who had a profound veneration for the innermost world of consciousness, Warhol was obsessed by concreteness, the material world, that is, visible and tangible objects.
Over and above his activity as an artist, Warhol's boldness and provocativeness were conspicuous traits of his personal life as well: his aspect and behavior never failed to clash drastically with the image of masculinity that his predecessors had carefully fostered. Moreover, unlike them, Warhol consciously attempted to correct, so to speak, the universals of Abstract Expressionism and to "re-Americanize" the art of the United States. In fact, like the phenomenon of Pop art itself, the themes of his work were always thoroughly American.
Pop artists never formed a coherent movement, nor did they issue man-ifestos or joint formal announcements, and in spite of their common fondness for popular imagery and a shared predilection for commercial artistic techniques, their respective styles were altogether distinct and unmistakable. When looking at Pop painting, one immediately realizes that its themes are hardly, if ever, original—they are not the product, that is, of the artist's creative imagination. No longer an original creator, the Pop artist merely observes and selects. Pop art is a form of artistic piracy, so to speak. Its thematic choices are based on a repertoire of previously processed images: not a live girl, but a pinup from a magazine; not a real can or package, but the printed ad for a can or a package. Building on the same symbols and themes, Warhol bypassed entirely any type of painterly packaging: instead of presenting merchandise as a sublimated theme, he rendered it with the same crude and exact makeup of advertising; instead of using his own expressive and creative force, he offered a plain reproduction; instead of an individual style, he resorted to the impersonal process of printing.
Warhol's aim was to bridge the gap between avant-garde artists and the public. The common people, not the intellectual elite, are the intended recipients of his work. Pop art was meant for everybody, not only for the select few. Warhol wanted to put an end to the stereotype of the artist in an ivory tower; he chose instead to descend into the streets, exhibit his work in shop windows, and appropriate the most typical products of mass consumption. Hence the familiarity of his art; like Pop art in its original formulation, it attempts to react against those elite viewers who had tried to impose one single form of art—and one type of response to it—to the exclusion of all others. In some instances, however, the viewer's response may be different from what Warhol intended, since the layperson is not always likely to grasp the value of his oeuvre. One of the principal characteristics of the Pop artist's work is its transience: as soon as its themes are no longer recognizable for posterity, its interest will for the most part disappear. The novelty and originality of Warhol's art is firmly rooted in its choice of pictorial contents, which, for future generations of viewers, is bound to lose its primitive sense of radical desacralization of traditional myths.
His transgressive attitude notwithstanding, Warhol managed to gain wide public acceptance and, toward the end of his career, as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has suggested, he had apparently succeeded in reconciling "the two poles of modernistic dialectic, the department store and the museum." (Indeed, Warhol once claimed that "department stores are kind of like museums.") In 1986, while his works hung in important collections alongside great masterpieces from the past, the artist offered a portrait sitting for sale at 35,000 dollars in the Christmas issue of the Neiman-Marcus mail-order catalog. Like King Midas, Warhol appears to have had the power of turning to gold all that he touched. Even the most insignificant, trite, and cheap object could potentially be converted into a work of art. In modern times, mankind in general and artists in particular appear to have been absorbed by the external world, pushing the inner world of the self into the background. Contemporary society seems fascinated by exactly this type of cynical and transgressive artist glorified by the media. There appears to be a widespread worship accorded to the artist as businessperson or the businessperson as artist who is able to equate consumerism with a form of egalitarianism:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. 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."
- Andy Warhol