Pop Art Superstar

Andy Warhol is a name that is synonymous with Pop Art, a visual art movement that flourished in the 1960s. Hundreds of exhibitions of Warhol’s works have taken place all over the world; this year it was Tate Modern’s turn to display his paintings. To make their exhibition different from others, Tate Modern has focused on Andy Warhol’s life as much as his work, exploring who he was as a person, not just an artist. Due to popular demand (and Covid-19 restrictions), Tate has extended the Andy Warhol exhibition to 15th November 2020.

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 6th August 1928 to Ondrej (1889-1942) and Julia (1892-1972). His parents were emigrants from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia) and his father worked as a coal miner. Ondrej and Julia’s eldest son died before they moved to America, where they had three more children: Pavol (Paul), Ján (John, 1925-2010) and Andrew.

Warhol did not have the easiest of childhoods. At eight years old, Warhol suffered from Sydenham’s chorea and spent a great deal of time in bed drawing. When Warhol was 13, Ondrej Warhola passed away in an accident and left all his savings to his youngest son, and assigned his older sons the responsibility to ensure Andy attended college. True to their word, Warhol attended the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design.

At the age of 21, Warhol moved to New York, permanently removing the “a” from the end of his surname. His mother joined him a couple of years later, remaining with him for the rest of her life. As a commercial artist, Warhol worked for magazines, such as Glamour, where he became known for his simple line drawings. 

People commented on Warhol’s ability to convey emotion in his line drawings, but Warhol was keen to develop his techniques further. He developed a “blotting” technique, which involved applying ink to paper and blotting the ink while still wet. Blotting was a rudimentary process of the silkscreen printmaking method for which he is most known.

Warhol wanted to be famous and taken seriously as an artist, but working for magazines was not going to help him achieve his goal. During the 1950s, he exhibited some of his artworks in exhibitions taking inspiration from new forms of art by other artists, for example, Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) who used a combination of paint and recognisable objects in their works.

Using stencils to aid his accuracy, Warhol started including well-known brands in his paintings, most notably Campbell’s soup. Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Can for the first time in 1962. He produced many versions of the can, including a canvas featuring 100 identical cans of beef noodle soup. Although painted by hand, Warhol used stencils to speed up the process and help him maintain accuracy. Whilst the painting may seem random in the 21st century, Warhol was trying to express a message about the importance of art and consumerism in the post-war era. It was also a reference to his childhood when a can of Campbell’s Soup was something precious. Warhol and his brothers grew up eating watered-down ketchup with salt for soup.

Warhol was pleased with the effectiveness of using stencils but wanted to speed up the process even more. He started to adopt the technique of screenprinting, which allowed him to reproduce an image onto a canvas multiple times. He discovered he could also print pre-existing photographs from magazines and newspapers in a similar way, playing around with the colours and amount of ink to create different effects.

Green Coca-Cola Bottles is an example of Warhol’s use of screenprinting. He also used acrylic paint and graphite to add some details by hand. Coca-Cola did not have the same connotations as Campbell’s Soup did to his childhood, but Warhol was trying to convey a message:

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. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again (1975)

Using well-known images and icons helped Andy Warhol stand out and attract attention. When Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) passed away from a drug overdose, Warhol produced his Marilyn Diptych. On one canvas, Warhol printed several coloured prints of a publicity photo for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara, and on the opposite canvas, did the same in black and white. Critics have added meaning to this artwork, suggesting it is a contrast between Monroe’s public and private life, or life and death.

Throughout history, artists have employed others to do some of the work for them; Andy Warhol was no different. Warhol sent his chosen images to a professional silk screen maker with instructions on size to produce the stencils for his work. These stencils printed the image, usually in black and white, onto a canvas pre-painted by Warhol. As time went on, he began to experiment with prints in a range of colours.

White Brillo Boxes is an example of Warhol’s coloured prints. Rather than canvas, Warhol used plywood boxes made by a cabinet maker, onto which he printed the logo and packaging details of the original boxes of Brillo scouring packs. This process turned the commercial design by James Harvey (1929–65) into an artform.

Warhol believed the purpose of art was for entertainment, and he aimed to paint to please people. Unfortunately, he also upset several people with his subject matter. Occasionally, Warhol used photographs from news reports detailing suicide, violence and car crashes, resulting in a mix of reactions. Using other people’s images also got Warhol in trouble. For his Flower series, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus flowers from a 1964 copy of Modern Photography magazine and was subsequently sued by Patricia Caulfield, the photographer, for copyright infringement.

Warhol believed creating pop art was “being like a machine” because the process was mechanical and removed the artist’s personal touch from the outcome. He claimed “I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody,” meaning treat everyone equally. Warhol’s personal life, on the other hand, was far from machine-like.

Throughout his life, Warhol was uncomfortable with his physical appearance and had plastic surgery on his nose in 1957. Unhappy with the result, he experimented with fashion to transform his appearance. Self-conscious of his receding hairline, Warhol wore blond toupees, which he replaced with silver and grey ones as he got older.

During the 1950s, Warhol came out to the LGBTQ+ communities in New York, revealing his homosexuality. It was a difficult time for gay men because same-sex relationships were illegal in America. Nevertheless, Warhol got together with the poet John Giorno (1936-2019), who he met at an exhibition in 1962. Giorno became a prominent subject for Warhol’s work, particularly in his experimental film Sleep, a five-hour recording of Giorno sleeping. Not many people appreciated the film, but it was not the outcome of the project but the process that mattered most to Warhol, revealing his tender feelings towards his lover.

Warhol continued to make films with his associates until 1972. During this time, they produced over 500 unscripted films, ignoring all traditional methods of film-making. In 1963, Warhol set up an experimental studio called The Factory, which his lover at the time, Billy Name (1940-2016), decorated in silver paint and foil. Over the next few years, Warhol recorded the people who visited his studio, which he turned into a film called Screen Tests.

The people who visited The Factory, “superstars” as Warhol called them, were instructed to be themselves for the duration of the reel as though they did not know there was a camera. Although some of the “superstars” were already well-known, the film aimed to encapsulate Warhol’s maxim that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Edie Sedgwick (1943-71) was the most prominent actress in Warhol’s film, gaining success for her unique style and personality. She went on to star in more films by Warhol and other producers until her death from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Other “superstars” included Susan Sontag (1933-2004), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Bob Dylan (b.1944) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97).

Warhol’s first commercial success in the film industry was The Chelsea Girls, released in 1966. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey (b.1938), the film follows the lives of several young women who live at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Many of the actresses were Warhol’s “superstars” from the Screen Tests.

Warhol announced his retirement from painting in favour of film making with a farewell show in 1965. Nonetheless, he continued to produce printed matter, such as magazines, posters and books, as promotional materials. He also designed record covers for bands, such as The Velvet Underground and Nico. Christa Päffgen (1938-88), known by the stage name Nico, took inspiration from Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls, using the title for her debut album.

In 1967, Warhol was approached by an aspiring film writer Valerie Solanas (1936-88) who asked him to read through her script. He promised he would and did, but found it so disturbing that he pretended to have lost it when she contacted him later. Convinced Warhol had stolen her work, Solonas, later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, turned up at The Factory on 3rd June 1968 and shot him three times at close range. Warhol was rushed to hospital and declared clinically dead.

Miraculously, the doctors managed to revive Warhol, but he suffered severe damage to his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. Although they operated on him, the surgeons did not expect Warhol to live. Andy Warhol surprised them all by opening his eyes and starting the long road to recovery. One of the doctors remarked, “This man made his mind up he was going to live.”

Due to the severity of Solanas’ mental health, the judge only sentenced her to three years in prison. On her release, she stalked Warhol until caught and institutionalised. Warhol lived in fear that Solanas would attack him again and closed The Factory. He decided to pass most of his film directing to Morrissey and return to his “old art”. For a while, Warhol was a shell of his former self, or a “Cardboard Andy” as Billy Name dubbed him. Yet, when interviewed, Warhol was able to inject humour into his situation, comparing the stitches on his chest to a Yves Saint Laurent dress.

Compared to the 1960s, the 70s were a quiet decade for Warhol. He focused on several commissions for well-off patrons, including the Shah of Iran, Mick Jagger (b.1943), Liza Minnelli (b.1946), John Lennon (1940-80) and Diana Ross (b.1944). He also published a book,  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, in which he expressed the idea “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Still suffering from the attempt on his life, Warhol received another blow when his mother passed away in 1972. Being a private, reticent man, Warhol did not tell anyone about her death, not even his long-term partner Jed Johnson (1948-96) who found out years later from one of Warhol’s brothers.

When not working on commissions, Warhol often asked other people for painting ideas. His art dealer suggested he paint a portrait of the most important person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Warhol liked the suggestion but insisted the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was the most important man. At the time, Mao had just received a visit from President Richard Nixon (1913-94) and sold, or forced people to buy, over a million copies of his Little Red Book

“Everybody’s asking me if I’m a Communist because I’ve done Mao. So now I’m doing hammers and sickles for communism, and skulls for fascism.” Naturally, people wondered if Warhol was a Communist but, in reality, he took inspiration from communist graffiti on walls in Italy, for example, the hammer and sickle symbols of the Soviet Union. To prove he did not affiliate with the party, Warhol painted images of skulls to represent fascism, a form of far-right dictatorial power at the opposite side of the political spectrum.

In 1975, the Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino commissioned Warhol to paint a series featuring portraits of Black and Latin American drag queens and trans women. Rarely seen in fine art and not a community Warhol identified with, some people questioned the ethicality of the project. Nonetheless, Warhol took on the commission, hiring 14 models. Anselmino wanted Warhol to depict the dramatisation of gender, suggesting drag queens with 5 o’clock shadow, but Warhol deviated from the proposal to explore the glamour and personality of the models.

Most of Warhol’s models remain anonymous, but some have been named, such as American activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92). Born Malcolm Michaels Jr, Johnson self-identified as a drag queen and became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and was popular with New York’s gay and art scene. Daily attacks of racism and homophobia caused Johnson’s mental health to suffer and, after a pride parade in 1992, the police found Johnson’s body floating in the River Hudson. Initially ruled as suicide, a head wound suggested murder.

Andy Warhol’s artwork and near brush with death made him an international celebrity. During the 1970s, he spent most evenings socialising with other well-known people, which he jokingly called his “social disease”. In 1986, Warhol hosted a chat show called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which played on his celebrity status and network. Many of the guests were up and coming musicians, such as Debbie Harry (b.1945) and Grace Jones (b.1948), and the English actor (Sir) Ian McKellen (b.1939).

Debbie Harry and Grace Jones both became subjects for Warhol’s paintings in the 1980s. Now known as the lead singer of Blondie, Harry used to daydream Marilyn Monroe was her mother and was “stunned” and “humbled” when Warhol painted her portrait in the style of the one he produced of her idol. As well as Harry and Jones, Warhol painted many celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton (b.1946) and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). The latter was for a German gallery and reflected the concerns of the Cold War developing between the USA and USSR.

One of Warhol’s favourite “celebrities” to paint was the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York as a gift from France, Warhol produced a close-up portrait of the statue’s face. Rather than using a photograph of the statue, Warhol used an image of a centenary biscuit tin and included the logo “Fabis” in the painting. In the background, Warhol covered the canvas with a military camouflage print to suggest that, although the statue represents freedom, wars still waged in the world.

The Statue of Liberty had a deeper meaning for Warhol. When his parents emigrated to the United States, they landed at Ellis Island, near the location of the statue. His parents’ names are listed on the “Wall of Honour” in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Other people on the wall include Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Bob Hope (1903-2003) and Cary Grant (1904-86).

In the 1980s, Warhol experimented with his hairstyle – or wig style – creating what he called his “fright wig”. In self-portraits and photographs, the wig stands out, taking on the status of art in itself. His appearance was an icon and his hair as recognisable as his work, but his close friends knew this was only a facade for the public. In reality, Warhol was in severe pain and lived as an introverted individual. His self-portrait of 1986 reveals his gaunt face and poor health.

One of Warhol’s final works was Sixty Last Suppers (1986), which was part of a series commissioned by collector and gallerist Alexander Iolas (1907-87). Based on Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper, Warhol exceeded expectations by producing over 100 variations on the theme, making it the most extensive series of religious-themed works by an American artist.

Speaking about the work, Warhol stated, “It’s a good picture… It’s something you see all the time. You don’t think about it.” Yet, it may have held more meaning for Warhol than he let on. The image depicts a group of men, something Warhol had never painted before. Although it is a Biblical scene, Warhol produced his versions at a time when the private lives of gay men were under scrutiny. Not long before working on the Last Supper series, Warhol’s previous partner Jon Gould passed away from an AIDS-related illness; the fact that, in this scene, Jesus was only hours from his crucifixion, may not have been lost on Warhol. With rapidly declining health, Warhol knew that he too was not long for the world.

Warhol’s Last Supper paintings were exhibited in Milan after which he reluctantly returned to New York for a gallbladder operation. Although a routine surgery, Warhol’s previous gunshot wound and declining health made the operation riskier – a factor that surgeons did not take into account at the time. Doctors fully expected Warhol to survive the surgery, but on 22nd February 1987 at the age of 58, Warhol passed away in his sleep from a sudden post-operative irregular heartbeat.

Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, but whilst this is an umbrella term for his work, it is not easy to categorise individual pieces. As one journalist for The Economist put it, Warhol is the “bellwether of the art market”. By focusing on his life as much as his work, Tate helped visitors to the gallery begin to understand the thought processes behind Warhol’s paintings and how he developed such a unique style. Andy Warhol’s work may not be to everybody’s taste, but he was certainly an intriguing individual.