When considering the life and works of Andy Warhol, one thing is agreed upon: for good or bad, he changed the visual construction of the world we live in. By the time of his death in 1987 he was ranked on the same level with Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock as one of the three most important artists of this century. He was a working man, a social climber, a person who liked to build things, an acquirer of goods, and a known homosexual. These attributes all contributed to the interesting and complicated nature of his art.
Andrew Warhola, was born August 6, 1928 in Pittsburg. He was the youngest son of Czechoslovakian immigrants. Andrew was born at the time of the Wall Street Crash (1929) and the Great Depression. Like millions of other families, Andrew’s father could not find work and his early childhood was very difficult and deprived. After several years his family’s financial situation improved and he was older he attend a commercial design course at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology. Although he was very shy and had a strong fear of failure, he did very well there.
In 1949, Andrew Warhola moved to New York. After his first commission to illustrate shoes, Andrew noticed that the final ‘a’ of his name was omitted in the credits and since decided to call himself Andy Warhol (a name that he considered youthful). He quickly became a successful and highly paid commercial artist in the 1950’s but desperately wished for fame as a fine artist. He was unsuccessful in his efforts and sold few exhibits. Andrew became depressed and believed that the ‘fine art world’ had rejected his art as old fashioned and irrelevant.
Andy needed new ideas to help boost his creativity. He got several ideas from a woman named Muriel Latow; a gallery owner he knew. She advised him to paint what he loved most (like money) or what everybody would recognize (soup cans and coke bottles). Andy expanded on these ideas and his paintings of the early 60’s reflected his progress as a Pop artist. He finally gained the financial success and international fame he had longed for.
Although Andy was identified with Pop art and credited with its invention, this is a misunderstanding of his creative ability. Pop is much more complicated than it seems. In creating Pop art, one must create memorable (although sometimes unrealistic) images and awareness of the unpredictable forces in nature and society in whole. It is not simply the portrayal of popular icons but more of an expression of all that is familiar and accepted American society. Pop art also contains a serious sub-message that is not apparent at first sight. Trewin Copplestone, author of The life and works of Andy Warhol, pointed out that Pop artists were aware of this and exploited it:
In Warhol’s later disaster paintings, for instance, he portrays ‘illth’s in society, as John Ruskin described it in the 19th century, that is the downside of modern civilization that has to be set against the ‘wealth’ – the benefits it brings: for example death and injury that the car brings against its obvious advantages. It is this factor of focus, and not the common artifacts used, that give Pop, and particularly the work of Warhol, its significance. (3)
During his working career, Andy used several different methods and media for producing his art. He was able to create the same subject in different media and by different methods. Before 1962 he used paint – acrylic or oil – and stencil for his subjects, included the repeated series of images as in Warhol’s Campbell Soup’ cans (Copplestone 14). After 1962 he used variations of silk-screen process as in Warhol’s Roll of Bills (Copplestone 19).
In 1963, Andy began a wide range of disaster works. Under the advice of Henry Geldzahler (a friend and art critic), who felt that everything wasn’t so fabulous in America and that it was time to reflect that in Andy’s paintings. Andy took his advice and began painting images of death and chaos. His Red Race Riot is a perfect example of art, which depicts human suffering and the anger and fear felt on both sides. This anguish is emphasized by the suggestion of blood in the overall textured red tint. Other disaster works by Andy included various death images from suicides, auto wreckages, war scenes and many other vehicles of death.
In 1964, Andy began silk-screening images on wooden boxes. He became well known for his boxed commodities, soapboxes and Brillo pad box sculptures. It was during this time that Geldzhaler, his friend who redirected Andy from soup cans, coke bottles, and celebrities into disaster themes, once again advised Andy to leave disasters and paint flowers. This was big change for Andy who quickly adopted the idea. Warhol and his assistant produced several hundred paintings of flowers in a variety of colors. The first exhibit sold out and the industry continued. Geldzhaler’s casual idea definitely paid off but it was Andy’s creative ability to shape this idea into powerful imagery that’s behind it all. Dave Hickey writes in Andy’s Enterprise: Nothing Special “Warhol did not change the ‘look’ of the images we see. He changed the way we look at them, the importance we attach to them, and the similarities we see between them.” (93)
During the 1970’s Andy work moved in a new direction. He began painting images of common people. He painted various subjects from his mother, to the American Indian Russell Means, to the writer Truman Capote (Andy admired and was attracted to Capote but the feelings were never returned). Andy created many more paintings of those in his life. He also painted several self-portraits that I find interesting because they are all partly disguised in some way (I have been unable to find one clear picture of him). Images of Warhol range from half silhouette blurred portraits to pictures from his earlier years wearing dark sunglasses or even more interesting – an army camouflaged face with the jigsaw like pieces disguising his true form.
By 1982, Andy had begun to lose some of his creative energy. His lack of direction was evident during this period through his $9 painting – a work which depicts nine dollar signs in various shades and colors. In the year before his death, Andy made of silk-screened prints of commercial ads with some deviations from the original. It was a kind of return to his original career as a commercial artist, but with the confidence he lacked before. He had indeed crossed the final bridge by turning commerce into art by his belief that anything could be art if he said so.
- Copplestone, Trewin. The Life and Works of Andy Warhol. Great Britian: Parragon, 1995.
- Hickey, Dave, Bruce Hamilton and Bruce Kurtz. “Andy’s Enterprise: Nothing Special.”
- Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Walt Disney. Germany: Prestel, 1992.