Did Anybody Really Know Pop Artist Andy Warhol?

Did Anybody Really Know Pop Artist Andy Warhol?

American painter Andy Warhol was a central figure in the Pop Art movement. His work was reactionary to the prior Abstract Expressionists. He realized a level of notoriety normally reserved for Hollywood stars, and has been a major influence on other artists then and now.

Andy Warhol
NYC Street Map, c.1949
Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol – Biography

Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Andy Warhol was American painter, printmaker, sculptor, draughtsman, illustrator, film maker, writer and collector.

Andy Warhol – The Pre-Pop Years

He moved to New York in 1949, after his studies at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. In New York, he started a successful career as a commercial artist for fashion houses, producing illustrations & advertisements for newspapers & magazines (e.g. Glamour, Dance Magazine), and window displays for retail stores. In particular, his whimsical shoe ads offered him some major awards in this field. All these experiences offered him both artistic ability and insight.

Andy Warhol had his first individual show at the Hugo Gallery in 1952. The show featured Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote. During the ’50s he managed to participate in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art, and showed his work at other venues.

Andy Warhol – Artistic Development of Pop

Artistically, the 1960s was an extremely prolific decade for Warhol. Warhol used his commercial work to support him till at least ’63. However in 1960 he had made the decision to establish his name as a painter. By this time, he’d already done major ground work for his future fame & success. One bit of groundwork was glamorization his original name ‘Warhola’ to a much stronger version of ‘Warhol’. Andy Warhol was clever and determined marketer….

His first aim was to put himself in the league of other young artists, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were already receiving the art critics’ attention. To this end, Andy Warhol painted a series of artwork centered around advertisements and comic strips. These earliest works of Pop Art were loosely painted in a mock-expressive style that parodied the gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism.

Andy Warhol
Campbell’s Soup I: Chicke…
Andy Warhol

In his next phase, he had already adopted his famous hard outlines and flat areas of color, giving his images a printed appearance, through the use of stencils, rubber stamps and hand-cut silkscreens. This deliberately inexpressive style of painting was void of the conventional displays of emotion. When coupled with his choice of banal subject-matter of Cola bottles and soup cans, he shocked an audience which had become accustomed to passionate Expressionist Art.

End 1962 Warhol had already landed at his famous technique of paintings by screenprinting photographic images on to one-colored backgrounds or background with flat, interlocking colors areas that approximated the outlines of the central images.
He impersonalised his artwork as much as feasible. His most successful portraits of glamorous film star Marilyn Monroe showed a mask-like face which as an iconicm and thus unreal quality to it. His gruesome artworks featuring tens of repetitions of car crashes and other newsy disasters have the same objective of creating an unreality. Meanwhile, he is simultaneously showing the extreme reality of the event, the sensationalist and repetitious nature of our media, and this impersonal unreality.

He also applied his ideas about art based on mass production in a witty installation of sculptures (‘Brillo Boxes’) at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964. The replicating supermarket cartons were shown at their actual size by screenprinting their designs on to blocks made of plywood.

Andy Warhol’s Dive into Art Films & Underground Music

In 1965 Andy Warhol shifted his focus to film and performance art, even though he continued to paint and gain popularity over his limited edition prints produced in this time.

Warhol produced a number of films and multimedia events. An example is ‘Empire’ made in 1964. It is an 8 hour shot of the Empire State Building. It symbolized extreme aesthetic boredom. In Warhol’s multimedia art productions ‘The Exploding Plastic Inevitable’, he mixed light and film projections with the life music by the rock band ‘The Velvet Underground’. This film episode of his life was filled with underground figures, drug addicts, transvestites and other unconventional types.

When he nearly died in an attempted assassination in 1968, Warhol changed. He secured his Factory. He switched his low-brow entourage with a wealthy, fashionably and cultural high-brow part of society. He became a rather unapproachable persona, living like an icon of himself, with the real Warhol locked away. Of course this had an impact on his art. In the 70’s he concentrated on commissioned portraits printed from enlargements of Polaroid photographs. These portraits completed his self-proclaimed shift to ‘business artist’. As these portraits lacked the glamor of his prior works, artistically he was seen to be over his peek, at least as far as his portrait series were concerned.

He still had plenty of innovation in him. There was the monumental series of 102 screenprints of ‘Shadows’ (1978) that were displayed edge-to-edge as a 360-degree gallery installation. In that same period, there was the equally experimental ‘Oxidation’ painting series, made by urinating on the surface of a copper paint. It was Warhol’s version of ‘pure abstraction’ and a parody on Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings.

Andy Warhol
Ten Marilyns, c.1967
Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol – Artistic Philosophy

Warhol started by painting each image by hand, but then went on to screen print them ~ a technique of mass reproduction, attaching a stencil to a screen stretched on a frame, and forcing the color through the unmasked areas on the screen.

Andy Warhol – Art as Mass Production

“I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me,” Andy Warhol told art critic G.R. Swenson in ’63, disengaging from the process of artistic creation. In this vain, he named his fashionable gallery and studio, ‘The Factory’ ~ a place where Warhol and his team of assistants produced his silkscreened artwork, as well as a popular place for other artists besides Warhol himself to work and party.

Like all pop artists, Warhol used found printed images from newspapers, publicity stills, and advertisements as his subject matter; he adopted silkscreening as his medium. Warhol aligned himself with the signs of contemporary mass culture.

By repeating the same motif, he also achieved an aesthetic distance from his work. In mass-producing images of everyday items such as soup cans and Marilyn Monroes, he questioned both authorship and the validity of uniqueness. He also affirmed common American culture, and questioned what beyond art.

Andy Warhol art
Dollar Sign, c.1981
Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol – Major Series & Themes

Warhol had several major themes in his oeuvre: celebrity & fame, catastrophe & death, consumerism & capitalism. Warhol’s choice of subjects revealed how he was as a person: a compulsive shopper, who was obsessed with his own celebrity status, as well as with his own death.

On Capitalism
Warhol loved money and simultaneously wanted to nullify its power. There are many Warhol quotes around money. For example, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” and “A lady friend of mine asked me: Well, what do you love most? That’s how I started painting money.”

Warhol is also quoted to have said “Death means a lot of money, honey. Death can really make you look like a star.” How right he was. Today his works are worth millions. As a point in time, in June 2008, Christies auctioned one of his Dollar Sign paintings for $3m. Andy would have loved it.

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Jackie, c.1964 (On Red)
Andy Warhol

On Fame
By choosing glamorous subject matters such as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and various Queens, Warhol aimed to demystify the major theme of fame.

On Death & Dying
Warhol’s theme of death & disaster reveal another dimension to his art. He was preoccupied with news reports of violent death. He questioned our immunity to such violence caused by the constant limelight on these events in the media.

In the early ’60s Warhol began to make macabre paintings. ‘Orange Disaster #5’ is an electric chair, repeated 15 times. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” Warhol had explained once. However, the painting of reiterated tragedy depicted by the empty chair still leaves the viewer a stomach-turning feeling of ‘who’s next’. Death will take us all, showed Warhol’s work.

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Self-Portrait, c.1986 (Four Yellow An…
Andy Warhol

On the Self, the Persona & Self-Portraits

The use of found commercial photography featuring celebrities, disasters, etc. as source material for Warhol’s silkscreens is of course what resulted in his monumental fame. However, it is lesser known that, besides using these found photographs, Warhol also worked from his own photos. He actually took tens of thousands of Polariod photos from the ’70s onwards. The Polariod process appealed to Warhol because of its speed, ease, and image-flattening effect.

He used his Polaroids as working studies, for experimentation and included self-portraiture as a drag queen ~ an extensive series of images exploring the artifice, the masking, the role-playing, and the construction of identity and cultivation of one’s public persona.

One of the last self-portraits Warhol painted before his death, is considered an fearful meditation of an aging artist.


Warhol’s work regained spirit in the ’80s, thanks to the spark offered by younger artists, such as American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–88).

After a series of collaborations with Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring, Warhol started painting by hand again, for the first time since the early ’60s.

Andy Warhol
Detail of the Last Supper, c.1986
Andy Warhol

Last Works

All his artistic themes are synthesized and merge with his background as a devout Catholic in Warhol’s last hand-painted works on religious themes, such as the rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. In his painting, this most sacred event in Christianity is partly obliterated by logos of brand names. Warhol passed away in New York in 1987 at age 59, due to a complication of an otherwise rather innocent operation.

Two years later, in 1989, New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized a major retrospective of his art. A dedicated Andy Warhol Museum was inaugurated in Pittsburgh in 1994. This museum houses a large collection of his works from all periods drawn in large part from his estate. Beyond this, his work is featured in all modern art museums around the world and he will continue to inspire artists for many decades to come.

Click here to learn about an excellent, current exhibition of Andy Warhol’s work.
Click here for funny & insightful Andy Warhol quotes.

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