On August 6th, the poster boy of Pop Art, Andy Warhol (1928–1987), would have turned 93-years-old. A working-class immigrant of Carpatho-Rusyn descent, he enjoyed international fame and revolutionised art-making forever. From early illustrations to commercial silkscreens, celebrity photography to multimedia artworks, we take a look at some of the artworks that made him one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
After studying pictorial design at Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol set his sights on a career in creative advertising. In 1949, at the age 21, he moved from a Rusyn ghetto in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to New York. It was there that he changed his name from ‘Warhola’ to ‘Warhol’ – allegedly, to sound more American. Initially, he worked as a window dresser and as a commercial artist for Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen. Keen to develop his own signature style, his first major break came when he produced a series of whimsical illustrations for I. Miller, a now defunct shoe designer for performers and movie stars.
Touchingly, when Warhol’s mother Julia Warhola moved in with him in 1950, she added her handwriting to many of his early illustrations. She wasn’t his only collaborator though. Warhol and his friends are said to have hand coloured his designs which first appeared in the New York Times at so-called ‘colouring parties’. In 1955, Warhol collated them all into a publication he titled, À la Recherche du Shoe Perdu; a playful riff on Marcel Proust’s famous novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time).
As a commercial illustrator in the 1950s, Warhol’s signature style became the so-called ‘blotted line’. A rudimentary form of printmaking, the technique involved drawing or tracing images onto a folded pieces of transparent paper, applying ink to the outlines, and then ‘blotting’ the ink while it was still wet to create a mirror image of delicate, dappled lines. The process not only enabled Warhol to make multiple duplicates of a single master image, but it also enabled him to embrace the possibility of errors and imperfections.
Warhol’s relationship with Campbell’s soup traces back to his childhood. When his family were struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, Julia Warhola crafted delicate flower arrangements out of discarded metal cans. With her three young sons in tow, she went from door to door selling her artworks to local residents.
Cambell’s soup cans continued to influence Warhol well into his own professional career too. Widely recognised as a busy workaholic, Warhol reportedly ate all 32 of Campbell’s soup range flavours, dutifully served by his doting mother – every day – for twenty years. This repeated ritual no doubt inspired his now iconic silkscreen soup can series. The technique enabled him to mechanise and mass-produce his artistic process. Mimicking the repetition and uniformity of advertising by reproducing the same image across 32 canvases, his soup cans were originally exhibited together on shelves reminiscent of items in a supermarket aisle. Such works have now come to epitomise the Pop Art movement. And, unbeknown to Warhol at the time, his humble soup cans became his meal ticket to world-renowned commercial success.
Warhol was obsessed with celebrities. When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, he quickly printed a publicity image from the 1953 film ‘Niagara’ she starred in. The choice was deliberate. A publicity professional, Warhol knew the image would be instantly recognisable. By repeating her image, he intended to evoke mass production and make ironic commentary on mass media’s obsession with celebrity culture.
Although he represented other high-profile celebrities (such as Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Kennedy), it was his Marilyn Diptych that was destined to become truly iconic. In 2004, it was named the third most influential piece of modern art in a survey of 500 artists (Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Fountain came first and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon took second place).
As he enjoyed success on home soil, Warhol attracted international attention. In 1968, a series of pithy aphorisms appeared as posters at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. These typographic prints marked a pivotal point in the pop artist’s career. Designed by John Melin, they made the most of bold, black text to distill minimalist messages. Today, they’re still coveted around the world.
Though he was well known for creating imagery about American consumerism and mass media, Warhol’s artistic oeuvre also stretched to include cows. The inspiration came from the art critic Ivan Karp who encouraged Warhol to ‘paint some cows, because they’re so wonderfully pastoral and such a durable image in the history of the arts.’ When Karp first saw Warhol’s fluorescent day-glo cow heads, he was shocked. But, after a moment’s reflection Karp is reported to have exclaimed, ‘They're super-pastoral! They’re ridiculous! They’re blazingly bright and vulgar!’ With the nod from Karp, Warhol transformed his cow prints into wallpaper and audaciously displayed them at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1966. On the opening night, they were overshadowed by the popularity of his helium ‘Silver Clouds’ installation in an adjoining room. However, since they mark such a deviation in traditional Warholian subject matter, his cows are still highly sought after. Many celebrate them as one of the first instances were a seemingly banal jersey cow could be subversively elevated through an unorthodox use of color and scale.
Warhol knew that the more that you left behind, the more there would be for people to explore and reevaluate over the centuries. Keen to evoke the ephemerality of the human condition, his silkscreen skull series marked the beginning of a more macabre trajectory. After purchasing a skull from an antiques shop in Paris, he took it to his studio in New York and, along with the help of his studio assistant Robbie Cutrone, adjusted the light source above to create varying lengths of shadows. His bold colour palette intended to jar with the morbidity of the scene. Reflecting upon that time, Cutrone is reported to have remarked that to paint a skull is ‘to paint the portrait of everybody in the world.’
The year before he died, Warhol’s studio assistant Jay Shriver showed him some abstract paintings he had made by pushing paint through the mesh of military cloth. Obsessed with shared, mass-produced visual language, Warhol created a series of screen printed canvases inspired by the military motif. His decision to repeat a pattern originally designed to disguise armed forces in combat and transform it into a highly visible, psychedelic abstraction was – in typical Warholian style – deliberately ironic.
Captivated by camouflage, Warhol even included it in some of his self portraits, leading some to surmise that he was symbolically camouflaging himself whilst – paradoxically – leading a highly public life. As they were created so late in his career, art critics have compared his camouflage series to Claude Monet’s water lilies which were also large in scale and made towards the end of his own life. Reflecting on the psychology of the artist and his output in this period, the Metropolitan Museum of Art described these works as ‘haunting, disembodied masks’.
In 1984, the art dealer Alexander Iolas commissioned Warhol to create a series of paintings and prints based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Warhol took photos of the famous work (originally painted between 1495 and 1498) and transferred them onto a silkscreen canvases. After which, working free-hand and on a dramatic scale, he produced over 100 renditions of The Last Supper. In 1987, his series was exhibited in the refectory of Milan’s Palazzo delle Stelline. Just one month later, Warhol was admitted to hospital for gallbladder surgery where he sadly died, aged just 58.
When asked what made Andy Warhol so memorable, art historian Jean Wainwright explained that, ‘Everybody can have ‘‘their own’’ Warhol. Painting, photography, fashion world... He even managed a pop group. Ultimately, he was a man that really understood that, in the future, we will be interested in the past: interested in what people sounded like and looked like. He saved faces, voices, and experiences, from media, from film, and mixed them all up in this amazing amount of work.’