The reigning king of pop art, Andy Warhol was an icon of of his age, an artist whose work and personality reflect the contours of the turbulent 1960s. Consumer products, sexual liberation, rock music, drug use, tragic death, and a heavy dose of shopping—the cultural phenomena that defined the decade are all on display in his art. Though he is best known for portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, deadpan paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, or polaroids of himself in a fright wig, Warhol’s legacy might be distilled in a single lyric by The Velvet Underground, the band that Warhol managed and included in his multimedia performances known as Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) (1966-67): “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”
Warhol put his name and a peelable silk-screened banana on the cover of the band’s first album. He was the kind of artist who loved these double-moves, daring you to see the queer eroticism in his cut-and-dry imagery, promoting his name by pretending to efface it, and insisting on his individuality of expression while embracing the machine-like production of art. Though remarkably shy and reserved at times, Warhol found a way to make art of nearly everything he did, experimenting with a prolific variety of artistic media. From the early 1950s to his death in 1987, he was a conspicuous contributor to the realms of commercial illustration, graphic design, painting, printmaking, celebrity portraiture, performance art, and film. His artistic intuition and commercial success generated an extraordinary cult of celebrity around him, one that remains strong long after his death.
An Eye for Art and Pop Culture
Key to understanding Warhol and his enduring impact on the history of art is his appreciation of popular culture, the “pop” in pop art. He grew up as part of the working-class masses. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928 to blue-collar Czechoslovakian immigrants, Andy was the youngest son of three. Developing a talent for art at a young age, he went on to study commercial art in college, earning a BFA in pictorial design from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949.
After graduating, Warhol moved to New York City in order to find work as a commercial illustrator. His talents led to quick successes with magazine and newspaper ads, and his blotted, monotype-style work for fashion houses won widespread praise. A 1955 advertising campaign for the shoe manufacturer I. Miller & Sons, for instance, earned Warhol awards from the influential Art Directors Club, and opened many doors to new social contacts.
The New York Avant-Garde
By the mid-1950s, thanks to the ascendancy of abstract expressionism (aka “action painting”), New York had become the international capital of modern art. Warhol admired many of these artists, particularly Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—whom he had come to know personally—and he was eager for his work to be considered as seriously as theirs. Warhol was interested in the Neo-Dada practices of Johns and Rauschenberg, but also in Richard Hamilton’s collages and Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dot paintings of comic strips. Blurring the line between fine art and popular culture, these artists inspired Warhol to make his first pop art paintings in 1960. He painted such early works as Water Heater (1961; New York, MoMA), and Saturday’s Popeye (1960; Mainz, Landesmus) in a loose style that winked at abstract expressionism, taking shapes and words from advertisements and painting them freehand on a white background.
Appropriation and Branding
To achieve these transfers of popular consumer imagery to his artwork more directly, Warhol soon turned to photographic screen-printing, a technique closer to serial factory production than painting with a brush. Silk-screened portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, photo transfers of macabre headlines from tabloids, dollar bills, and Coca-Cola bottles entered Warhol’s compositions. These works led to the artist’s first solo show in November 1962 at the prominent Stable Gallery in the Upper East Side. While that exhibition established a recognizable medium and style for Warhol in the silkscreened portraits that he would make until the last years of his life, it was the 1964 show at Stable Gallery that made him a revolutionary.
The show consisted of over 400 sculptural works that were made to resemble common commercial items: Heinz Ketchup, Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Campbell’s Tomato Juice. The most canonical of these was a silkscreened wooden box of Brillo Soap Pads, a design Warhol had stolen from the abstract expressionist painter James Harvey. This appropriation—of products, celebrities, and even other artwork—demonstrates Warhol’s brilliance, cutting to the essential philosophical question of modernism: what is art (or what isn’t art)? After the Brillo box, Warhol’s response became, “art is what you can get away with.”
Filmmaking at “The Factory”
This conceptual redefinition of art was also embodied at the site of its production. Again equating art to consumer goods, Warhol called his foil-lined studio at 231 East 47th Street in Manhattan “The Factory,” a place where he could both supervise the assembly-line production of silkscreen portraits (on request for only $25,000) and host parties full of the “seedy glamor” he loved.
Fueled by amphetamines and his “Superstars”—hand-selected models, bohemians, and underground artists—Warhol began to experiment with filmmaking. Beginning in 1964, he made over 500 “Screen Tests,” short films in which Factory visitors simply sat and stared at the camera, often yielding an unexpected psychological intensity. By 1965, after his “Flowers” exhibition in Paris, Warhol announced that he would retire from painting in order to focus on making movies.
Filmmaking provided Warhol a vivid means of exploring personal issues, including his nihilism and homosexuality, and, through his approach to camera movement and narrative, of challenging established styles of cinema. Empire (1964) is a single, silent, slow-motion shot of the Empire State Building that runs for eight hours and five minutes. Even when he focuses on human figures, the camera doesn’t move to the main event, as in Blow Job (1964), in which viewers see a close-up of a young man’s face while the titular sex act he is purportedly receiving remains off-screen.
Warhol’s films, like his art, may remind their audiences of the subjectivity, even emptiness, of aesthetic experience. Therein lie sadness and beauty as strange bedfellows, an image Warhol himself would have appreciated. By the end of his career, Warhol was so universally accepted that he could exhibit work with a painter as conservative as Jamie Wyeth and one as bohemian as Jean-Michel Basquiat. In fact, his stock in the art world continues to rise—his work brought in a total of $653 million in auctions in 2014—indicating his fifteen minutes of fame are not likely to end anytime soon.
—George Philip LeBourdais