Artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol was an initiator and one of the foremost exponents of Pop Art; he is best known for his multiple-image silkscreens of consumer goods and celebrities.
Born on 6 August 1928 as Andrew Warhola to poor Slovak immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warhol was a sickly child. When he was 13 his father, a construction worker, died in an accident, but he had recognised his son’s ability and put aside funds for a college education. From 1945 to 1949 Warhol studied pictorial design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and then moved to New York. There he worked as an illustrator for such magazines as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and produced advertisements and window displays. During the 1950s he became one of New York’s most successful commercial illustrators. Meanwhile he began to paint and in 1952 had his first solo exhibition at New York’s Hugo Gallery.
Influenced by meeting Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol worked increasingly to establish himself as a serious painter. His first Pop Art paintings, from 1960, use cartoon and advertising imagery and he parodied the self-conscious brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists. Soon, though, he moved to a deadpan method of execution. He appropriated subjects from popular culture, newspapers and consumer products, adopting an inexpressive, pared-down style that challenged notions of what art is.
Exhibiting paintings of rows of Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles in 1962, Warhol achieved the notoriety he sought. ‘What’s great about this country’, he wrote, ‘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 can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.’ Admiring the levelling effects of industrialisation, he stated: ‘I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should be like everybody. That seems to be what is happening now.’ In 1962 Warhol founded the Factory, where he could depict massed ranks of goods using mass-production screen printing. In this art studio, assistants carried out much of the work under his supervision, distancing him further from the traditional artist’s role.
Museum director, critic and artist John Coplans wrote, ‘Warhol’s body of painting clearly underwent three principal stages of development: 1) he would select an image and rework it informally; 2) he then began hand-painting selected images to simulate mass production; and 3) he finally dealt with mass production directly through the use of various reproductive processes.’
From 1963 Warhol began experimenting with film, and by 1968 he had made over 60 films and another 500 or so short black-and-white portrait clips of visitors to the Factory. Such ‘underground’ works as Empire (1964) present boredom as an extreme aesthetic experience (it runs for eight hours). Warhol’s impersonal approach extends into the films, which generally lack a plot and variously use improvised dialogue, project multiple images and document erotic acts. After an attempt on his life in June 1968, when he was shot and seriously injured by Valerie Solanis of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), Warhol handed over film making for the Factory collective to his assistant director.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Warhol produced portrait prints of Hollywood personalities and rock stars, fashion designers, artists and political leaders, among them Mick Jagger, Brigitte Bardot, Man Ray and Mao Zedong. In American Visions (1997), Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes describes him as ‘a conduit for a sort of collective American state of mind in which celebrity – the famous image of a person, the famous brand name – had completely replaced both sacredness and solidity’. Warhol co-founded Interview magazine, authored The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975) and exhibited his work internationally. Further publishing ventures included Portraits of the Seventies (1979), Andy Warhol’s Exposures (1979) and POPism: The Warhol Sixties (1980).
Among the most experimental of his later pieces are two ventures into virtual abstraction. ‘Shadows’ (1979) is a sequence of 102 screenprints from a hugely enlarged photograph of a diagonal shadow cast by a painting in Warhol’s studio. Mounted side-by-side right around the exhibition space, with black sectors butted up against glowing colour, they have something of the effect of film frames. More radical in its execution was the ‘Oxidation’ series (1978): Warhol and his assistants prepared canvases by covering the surfaces with copper paint and then urinated on them to make elegant iridescent designs in yellows, oranges and greens; perhaps they parody the random drip methods of painting used by such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock.
Warhol ran two television shows in the 1980s and worked in collaboration with various younger American and European artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Francesco Clemente. Resuming painting by hand, a process he had not used since the 1960s, he responded to a commission to produce a ‘Last Supper’. He began a series on the theme in 1984 and created over 100 powerful works, from the cartoon style Be somebody with a body to multiples of the head of Jesus; from tinted versions in pink, yellow and blue to vast canvases where Christ and the disciples are overlaid with brand names, doves or motorbikes. As a devout Eastern-rite Catholic, Warhol was steeped in the imagery of the church; whether his canvases were sacrilegious, ironically detached or whether he was trying to assimilate his faith with the material world is ambiguous.
Warhol died in New York on 22 February 1987 and was buried in Pittsburgh. A memorial mass held at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, was attended by more than 2,000 people. Two museums are dedicated to his work, in Slovakia and Pittsburgh, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, formed in accordance with his wishes in 1987 using proceeds from his estate, continues to ‘foster innovative artistic expression and the creative process’.