Have you ever visited a modern art museum, like the Tate in London or MoMA in New York, and wondered, “Is this picture of a Campbell soup can or a stack of supermarket boxes really fine art?” It’s hard to imagine sometimes why art is loved by so many art enthusiasts willing to pay millions of dollars for a single piece by Andy Warhol. Take, for example, the 1984 Michael Jackson portrait: Warhol silkscreened a photograph onto canvas, then brushed on bold colors, highlighting facial features that created a cartoon-like character resembling a mask. Huge crowds throughout the world attend his art exhibitions. What is it about Andy Warhol that fascinates so many?
Born in the dirty steelmaking city of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, this son of immigrants was raised by loving parents in a tenement where dinner was often ketchup mixed in hot water. Contracting Sydenham’s chorea at an early age, the shy and frail boy was mostly bedridden for a year, unable to attend school, yet staying faithful to his church. With his mother’s encouragement, he started to cut out pictures from movie magazines and drew sketches of Hollywood stars in a world far from his own. Warhol eventually recovered, finished school, and graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he studied commercial art. The rich imagery gathered during his childhood, the glamour of movie stars, and the influence of the Catholic religion would eventually fuse into his artwork portraying celebrities as cultural icons.
Desperate to join the glitzy world of movie magazines, the young Warhol packed his bags and headed to New York City in search of a job as a commercial illustrator. Dressed in a worn suit and carrying his art portfolio inside a paper bag, he called upon art directors of all the uptown fashion magazines. Often Warhol would hang around a coffee shop called “Serendipity III” on East 60th Street, where he drew sketches in exchange for pastries and coffee, and spent hours gazing across the room to watch famous movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Marlena Dietrich.
After long days of interviewing with Madison Avenue advertising agencies and enduring rejection after rejection, the struggling artist would sip cappuccino at Serendipity III with the shop owner, Stephen Bruce, and show him the rejected sketches that nobody bought. Offering to help Warhol, who always seemed socially awkward, Steve hung the sketches on the coffee shop walls with a selling price of $25 each, splitting the sales 50/50 with the artist. Wow… this was his first exhibition in 1950. Warhol, known as “Raggedy Andy” and always wearing the same worn gray suit and wrinkled shirt, landed his first job as an illustrator for a leather products company. Many more commissions followed, allowing him to define his early signature style of a blotted ink line, drawn on a shiny surface and then blotting the image with a matte board. The striking result is the same style used today by many illustrators.
By the mid 1950’s, Warhol, earning more than $100,000 per year (an amazing amount even today for an artist) desired more than just money. He wanted to be a famous artist. Unlike his contemporary Jackson Pollack, whose persona was outspoken, popular, and intense, Warhol needed to break into the fine art establishment with artwork commenting about the world around him to make people look and think about art and the world differently.
During the 1950’s boom-time in America, consumers were obsessed with the commercial revolution of color televisions, new cars, flirty fashions, supermarkets, and department stores. The mass-produced world of plenty for all was reflected in Warhol’s art of the new consumerism such as Coca-Cola. Everyone loved Coca-Cola, including President Eisenhower and Elizabeth Taylor, and no amount of money could buy a better coke. Thanks to his painting of a bottle of Coca-Cola, Warhol broke into the art world, becoming the father of a new art movement, “Pop Art,” which highlighted popular culture and the commercial world.
In 1962, Warhol exhibited 32 variations of Campbell soup cans, everything from tomato to vegetable to chicken with rice. At first glance the public thought the exhibition was a farce, a joke on them, but in retrospect it was about capitalism, consumerism, and society. It was about us. Warhol accomplished what seemed impossible, making people look and think about art and the world differently. Subsequent artists such as Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, inspired by Warhol, advanced the pop art movement going forward.
Even though Warhol became a famous artist, he still needed to become a celebrity, and decided to brand and market himself as a celebrity. Still known as “Raggedy Andy,” Warhol, with the help of a fashion stylist, did a complete makeover to sport cool clothing and several silver wigs selected to fit his mood at public events. With his new public image, Warhol became an icon, successfully branding himself with critics and supporters alike commenting that it was his greatest work of art. His next endeavor was to create a studio aptly named “The Factory” for mass producing consumerism artwork, and becoming home to endless gatherings of his “family of friends.”
Premiering his next exhibition, Warhol transformed an upscale art gallery into a supermarket with multiple boxes of Brillo pads, corn flake packages, and apple juice cartons. Many critics referred to the exhibition as a ridiculous fraud.
He was told during an interview, “Your art is not original sculptures… a copy of common ideas.”
In his deadpan voice Warhol replied, “Yes.”
When asked, “Why not do something new?” He replied, “I guess this was easier to do.”
The interviewer persisted and asked, “Is this a joke that you are playing on the public?”
He replied, “No… It gives me something to do.” From Warhol’s perspective, he was questioning the need for artwork to be original, or whether it was the idea behind the art that matters and not the skill that is used to create it.
Continuing his work in “The Factory,” Warhol hired a skilled printer, Gerard Malanga, to teach him the art of silk screening, a technique used to mass-produce artwork about a mass-produced world. The process is straightforward: take a photograph of your subject, make a negative to the final size of your artwork, expose the negative to a light sensitive emulsion and then paint with several colors over the silk screen to create the artwork. This silkscreen process became Andy Warhol’s trademark. With the help of his friends (dubbed the Warhol Superstars), a family of drag queens, socialites, drug addicts, musicians, and adult film performers, the artist managed to mass produce his artwork to meet the growing public demand. During this time, a single silkscreen would sell for $25,000 and by selling hundreds of silkscreens Warhol was able to finance the lives of his Superstars.
In 1962, when Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose, Warhol created a tribute to the celebrity’s life and death by designing 24 silkscreens from the same photograph and brushing colors onto each image revealing the tragedy, glamour, innocence, and pain of the many masks worn by her. With an uncanny and haunting quality, each mask colored her colorless portrait of the publicity photograph. From Warhol’s perspective, Marilyn Monroe, the iconic celebrity, achieved immortality through his artwork. In May 2007, the Gagosian Gallery sold one of the silkscreens, Turquoise Marilyn, for $80 million.
Life went on and so did the wild nightlife at The Factory, hosting everyone from freaks to movie stars, doing everything from sex orgies to drugs parties. It was all happening at The Factory, which lead to Warhol’s next passion: filming “happenings,” which included free love-making, staged weddings of drag queens, transgender characters, drug use, and same sex relations. Many times he would film a person staring into the camera telling them “to do whatever you like.”
Initially we all wear a mask and when you are filming continually, the mask starts to dissolve. This was the moment that Warhol waited to capture: the essence of a person. Warhol truly believed that anyone with enough exposure to the public via newspapers, film, or television could become a celebrity.
Today, many celebrities, such as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or the cast members of reality TV shows, have no particular skills such as acting, singing, or dancing, but they all have great media coverage to elevate them to celebrity status. Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” In our world of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it may be time to go viral and get your 15 minutes of fame.