Andy Warhol: Managed to blur the lines between high art and popular culture.
He is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
One of the most famous artists of his time, and perhaps of all times, Andy Warhol managed to blur the lines between high art and popular culture, artist and celebrity. He is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
In 1928, Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh to immigrant parents from what is now Eastern Slovakia. He grew up in a middle-class family with limited opportunities. And yet, with the influence and encouragement of both his parents, he was able to rise to unimaginable fame and success.
It seems like he was always destined to be an artist. It was only a matter of time. His interest in art began at an early age. As a child, Andy suffered from a rare disease that often kept him bedridden for weeks at a time. His mother, a seamstress by trade but also an artist herself, taught him to draw. In fact, much later, Warhol published a book of his mother’s drawings called Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother. His family gifted him a camera when he was eight years old. In elementary school, he took free art classes at Carnegie Institute. Recognizing his talent, his father worked hard to send him to college, and he ended up studying commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.”
After college, Andrew moved to New York and began his career as a commercial illustrator for such publications as Glamour and Vogue. It was here that he dropped the ‘a’ in his name and began to take on the now-iconic persona of Andy Warhol. He was already the most successful and most famous commercial illustrator of his time.
Warhol began moving towards pop art, which is inspired by everyday life and consumer products. He started portraying everyday consumer objects in his work, most famously his Campbell’s Soup cans and his Brillo Box installment.
He began using a technique of blotted-line ink drawings and silk screen printing. This process allowed him to create multiple prints along a common theme. Perhaps this was also a symbol of the mass-produced consumer products he was portraying. Warhol said, “Once you ‘got’ pop, you couldn’t see a sign the same way again.” He saw the similarities between modern art and advertising.
Some see his art as a celebration of pop culture, and some see it as a critique. His quote, “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 know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too,” gives the impression that he sees America’s commercial culture as a kind of leveler. In the way that everyone has the same access to products like Coca-Cola, his screen-printing process allowed him to mass produce art. The irony is that his high-priced art was never easily accessible to the masses.
“Everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.”
The idea of “15 minutes of fame” has been widely attributed to Andy Warhol. It’s now suggested that he was not actually the one to coin the term. It does seem that he used the quote in a brochure he distributed at a Swedish exhibition. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether he first coined the phrase or not; he certainly seemed to have believed it.
In 1964, Warhol rented a studio in midtown Manhattan that he called, The Factory. His charisma allured both the glitzy high-society and 1960’s bohemians. It soon became a magnet for artists, musicians, models, and Hollywood movie stars.
Warhol seemed to have developed somewhat of an obsession with celebrity and consumer culture. As a boy, he collected celebrity posters and autographs. Perhaps his fascination with fame and celebrity is what made him style himself to become a ‘Pop Icon.’ He cultivated his own celebrity through his personal style and his iconic white hair. He played with his style and wigs and created many self-portraits that shaped the art legend’s lasting image.
It was around this time that Warhol started experimenting with filmmaking. He produced over 600 films. Many of his friends and acquaintances got their ’15 minutes of fame’ through his art and filmmaking. The five-and-a-half-hour-long Sleep, featuring the poet John Giorno sleeping in the nude, was his first and probably most well-known.
Warhol designed album covers and even managed and produced the experimental rock band, The Velvet Underground. He really did have a hand in many buckets, and his influence on the art world went far beyond paintings and photography.
Andy Warhol was as much a businessman and entrepreneur as an artist. In his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he wrote, “Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes even if the people in it never do.”
By surrounding himself with famous people, Andy Warhol had no shortage of subjects for his famous portraits. Most notable are those of Marilyn Munroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, and even Mao Zedong. He painted stars, athletes, politicians. He once said, “I’ll paint anybody. Anybody that asks me. I just try to make people look good,” Of course, his self-portraits have been instrumental in the immortalization of Warhol’s image.
Andy was meticulous about his image, but he was rather private about his private life. It is widely assumed that Andy was a gay man, but he was not open about any personal relationships. After all, homosexuality was criminalized in 1950s America. Still, his sexuality was occasionally suggested through his work, most notably his drawing of nude males. His work was actually rejected from the Tanager Gallery due to the depiction of two men embracing.
In 1986, The Factory and Warhol’s flamboyant lifestyle came to an abrupt halt when he was shot and nearly killed by Valerie Solanas. She was an extremist, radical feminist who was paranoid that Warhol was trying to steal her manuscript. She had been trying to persuade him to publish it or make a film of it, but he continued to decline. At some point, he misplaced it, and she was convinced he was trying to steal it for his own use.
After calling him without an answer, she entered his apartment with two guns. She shot him through several of his vital organs. Warhol was in the hospital for months, recovering from several surgeries, and he needed to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life.
She was soon diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sentenced to a few years in prison. It might seem like a light sentence, but she ended her days alone in a mental institution.
The shooting took a toll on both Andy’s personal and work life. He mostly left behind his famous and eclectic acquaintances and ‘the Factory scene.’ Instead, he began focusing on the business side of things. He mostly worked on commissioned portraits that he painted from polaroid photos.
Since having briefly been declared dead after the shooting, images of death began to come up in his paintings, with images of skulls and guns reoccurring in his work.
“Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood.” (Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s long term studio assistant.)
In the 1980s, Warhol became a mentor and friend to several younger artists; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and Keith Haring. His collaborations with them brought out a new rebelliousness to his work.
He seemed to come back out of his shell after his near-miss with death, and these young and upcoming artists saw him as an idol of sorts. As Ronnie Cutrone said, they needed him as he needed them. Their collaborative work became edgier, once again.
During this time, there was also a resurgence in Andy Warhol’s religious side. He had grown up in a traditional Byzantine Catholic family, and he observed much of their heritage and religion throughout his life. In New York, he continued to attend mass and visited church almost daily. But now, he began to depict his faith through his art. We see symbolism of Raphael’s the Madonna appearing in his work and a depiction of The Last Supper (painted on boxing bags)!
Andy Warhol died in 1987. It is widely reported that his heart stopped following routine gallbladder surgery. The truth is that it was not so much a routine surgery after all. Warhol had never fully recovered from his gunshot injuries, yet he tried to carry on at his usual pace with a very sick body. He found it difficult to eat and was emaciated and dehydrated. It seems he was surviving on a daily dose of speed to keep him going. His gallbladder issues had been troubling him for a long time, but his fear of hospitals prevented him from seeking help before it was too late. It is not unusual that surgery would take a toll on his already weak body, and his heart stopped.
As he said, the idea is not to live forever but to create something that will. And that is what he did. His work continues to circulate through the top galleries in the world. His art has sold at auction for over 100 million dollars. Not only his drawings, paintings, and photography, but also his filmmaking has had a lasting effect on documentary and filmmaking. His legacy and influence on the art world and popular culture will endure.