Warhol's Influence

Andy Warhol’s early 1960s paintings, such as his soup cans, Brillo boxes, Coke paintings, flowers or his series of Marilyn Monroe were some of the most influential paintings of the 20th century.

This is because they became synonymous with the rise of Pop Art, which was hugely significant in the United States for its “dethroning” of  Abstract Expressionism. Ab Ex, as it was commonly referred to, had been the reigning avant-garde in the United States since the late 1940s. In its place, Pop Art became the most well-known art movement of the 1960s.

Pop Art was in so many respects the opposite of Abstract Expressionism. It blatantly used vulgar or shocking examples of mass culture in an emotionless way; it borrowed the techniques of commercial art; and it was not art about the individual, or “the artist’s inmost feelings and private visions,” or an art which was “abstract…and difficult to understand,” but one which featured pre-determined, repetitive, unvaried, anonymous and apathetic images, which did not require much creative transformation. This was to an extent that, in the words of Warhol, “anybody walking down Broadway could recognize [Pop Art] in a split second—[it was an art of] comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains.” Pop’s influence has been extraordinary. As Warhol explained, it provided a new type of art immediately accessible to the mass public and it influenced legions of subsequent artists, most recently Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst.

Warhol was influential in so many other ways as well. His foregrounding of himself as an artist-machine, and his use of his Factory for making art, for example, had a significant impact on how art would be made after him. While Warhol literalized and visualized what other artists like Frank Stella had suggested previously, he pushed far beyond the preceding popular notion of modernist artistic authorship, generally associated with the Abstract Expressionists, who emphasized the originality of the autographic touch and a romance with old emblems of solitude like the isolated studio. Warhol’s new definition of the artist was much more like a fashion designer or designer of other products, where the product is linked, not physically, but conceptually to the originator.

Warhol also worked in so many different media, a practice which was not really prevalent in American art until him, but which has birthed so many adherents. For example, in addition to being a Pop painter (as he is characteristically known), Warhol was, in the words of film theorist and writer, Peter Wollen: “A filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a band-leader (if that’s the word to characterize his involvement with the Velvet Underground), a TV soap opera producer, a window designer, a celebrity actor and model, an installation artist, a commercial illustrator, an artist’s book creator, a magazine editor and publisher, a businessman of sorts, a stand-up comedian of sorts, an exhibition curator, a collector and archivist, the creator of his own carefully honed celebrity image, and so on...Warhol, in short, was what we might loosely call a “Renaissance man,” albeit a Pop or perhaps post-modern Renaissance man.”

Warhol’s deft and constant use of the media was also a major change for the art world. Before Warhol—in the 1940s and 50s, publicity had not really been an issue for artists. Artists were naïve about its effect and television and the press were basically indifferent to art and artists. In the words or Robert Hughes, “Publicity” meant a notice in The New York Times, a paragraph or two long, followed eventually by an article in Art News, which perhaps five thousand people would read. Anything else was regarded as extrinsic to the work—something to view with suspicion, at best an accident, at worst a gratuitous distraction.” With Warhol, all of this changed, as Art turned into what he liked to call “Art Business” and he consistently manipulated the mass media to his own advantage. Warhol understood the media’s cult of personality, and he capitalized on it through his incredible ability to attract attention, or by being, in the words of curator Kynaston McShine, “in all the right places at all the right times.” Furthermore, Warhol was with all the right people at all the right times, and he even said the perfect, catchy, thing at all the right moments. Warhol’s significance can be argued even further. His exhibition, “The Personality of the Artist,” at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery—of his Brillo, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Del Monte Peach Halves and Mott's Apple Juice boxes—was one of the most significant art exhibitions at least of the 1960s and possibly of the last fifty years. Philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto called it “the foundation for philosophical aesthetics in the second half of this century.”

To read more about Warhol’s importance, see my earlier post. To learn about the birth of color photography as art, read the next post in this series about William Eggleston.