Andy Warhol's Pop Art Style (c.1959-73)
These works rank
Green Car Crash (1963) is one of the world's
The enthusiasm of Andy Warhol for the aesthetic of television, society newspaper columns, and fan magazines ran completely counter to the European model of the struggling avant-garde artist which the abstract expressionists had followed. Warhol demanded wealth and fame, and he considered anybody who had them fascinating. As well as this, his "lipstick-and-peroxide palette" is, as Adam Gopnik has pointed out (New Yorker, April 10, 1989), "a totally original sense of colour which makes all previous American palettes look European." Warhol's denial of any originality defined his artistic identity, and the fresh look of his paintings - exploiting the latest commercial art techniques - validated it.
Part of Warhol's unique skill lay in his recognition that a person can be communicated via the media much more effectively than an art object can be, and he attempted to define his existence entirely on the shallow plane of reproducible images. In his 1968 exhibition catalogue for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, he wrote: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings, and there I am. There's nothing more." From the early 1960s until his death in 1987, Warhol cleverly made use of both style and the media, and by so doing exposed the shallow values of contemporary society with a frankness that was both subversive and way ahead of its time. He showed that all fame is equal and basically meaningless in a world of constantly changing imagery; his own public image may have been irresistibly glamorous, yet its shallowness also left a disturbing emotional void.
Warhol was born near Pittsburgh in 1928 into a family of Byzantine-Catholic working-class Slovakian immigrants. After taking a degree in graphic design from Carnegie Tech in 1949, he moved into an apartment in New York City with his classmate Philip Pearlstein (b.1924) and quickly achieved success as a commercial artist. Warhol's New York Times drawings of shoes for Miller and Co brought him particular acclaim, and within a decade he was one of the best-paid commercial artists in the city, earning $65,000 a year. Warhol continued his career in graphic art until December 1962, but from the beginning he had private aspirations to become a successful fine artist.
Stylistically, Warhol's attempts at art in the 1950s was closely related to his commercial work in advertising, and several of the methods and techniques from his commercial design practice anticipated aspects of his later fine art. For example, he hosted "colouring parties" to produce his advertisements and delegated several tasks to his mother, tactics he would repeat later in his extensive use of assistants to manufacture his artwork. Similarly, his technique of drawing - or tracing pictures from magazines - on paper and then transferring them in wet ink onto a prepared background was repeated later in his adoption of silkscreen printing.
While several of Warhol's artistic practices of the 1950s persisted in his later work, they can hardly be said to have led inevitably to the shocking directness with which he suddenly began to adopt a commercial art style in his painting at the end of 1959. Neither was there any precedent for his radical appropriation of subject matter directly from the media for his large paintings of comic book images and newspaper ads (eg. Campbells Soup Can, 1962). According to Barry Blinderman (Modern Myths: An Interview with Andy Warhol, 1981), during the early sixties Warhol used a projector to transcribe and enlarge his sources with mechanical accuracy, and in his press statements he made a point of dismissing any originality in his work. Nevertheless he abandoned the comics as a subject from the moment he encountered Roy Lichtenstein's paintings of comics in the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961, revealing a keen instinct for the need to create an original style.
Having decided on a subject matter - cheap ads, comics and headlines from the cheap tabloid papers - Warhol played around with various styles between 1960 and 1962. In some compositions he transcribed his sources in a loose manner complete with paint drips to give them the sort of expressive character found in gesture painting. At the same time he created other images with hard, precise edges, a cold, mechanical style which he eventually settled on, calling them his "no comment" paintings.
Warhol enjoyed the mind-numbing non-selective mass-produced imagery promoted by media advertising. His art expressed and exalted the "sameness" of mass culture that the so-called intellectuals involved in abstract expressionism abhorred. In his book The Philosophy of Any Warhol (1975), he said that what he liked about America was that its richest consumers buy many of the same things as the poorest. "The president drinks Coke, Elvis drinks Coke - anyone and everyone drinks Coke. And no amount of money can buy someone a better Coke because all the Cokes are the same.
Even so, his choice of subjects was not random or arbitrary. As Kynaston McShine reveals in her publication Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (1989, MOMA, New York), many of his early images - "Wigs", "Where Is Your Rupture?", "Before and After" - concerning products promising bodily improvements in posture, hair, and bigger muscles, reflect Warhol's physical insecurities. Even Superman and Popeye, whom he painted in 1960-61, are characters that experience instant, physical transformations. McShine's interpretation is corroborated by Warhol's attempts to improve his appearance in the 1950s, by wearing a silver wig and having cosmetic surgery to reshape his nose in 1957.
Warhol did not have an exhibition of his pop paintings in New York until Eleanor Ward promoted them at the Stable Gallery in the autumn of 1962, though he did hang some of them (eg. Advertisement, Little King, Superman, Before and After, and Saturdays Popeye) as a background to the fashion mannequins in a department store display he organized for Bonwit Teller in April 1961. It was Irving Blum of the Ferus Gallery (Los Angeles) who gave him his first gallery show, in the autumn of 1962: an installation of thirty-two Campbell's Soup Cans, measuring 20 X 16 inches each. Warhol, always up to speed with the latest trend, may have painted them as a response to the Painted Bronze Ale Cans (1960) of Jasper Johns, but they surpassed the Johns sculpture in the bland neutrality of their mass-produced state. The images are so irresistibly what they are; they are not cans of soup but images, divorcing the "signifier" from the "signified" more absolutely than almost any painting created up to that time. Although a few of Warhol's drawings of soup cans still retain a delicate, gestural quality as late as 1962, the thirty-two cans have no trace of expressive gesture or individuality.
Warhol painted the cans and newspaper headlines of 1961 and 1962 by hand, but in late 1962 he found out how to transfer a picture photographically onto a silkscreen and immediately switched to this technique, eliminating all traces of the artist's touch and producing a more mechanically detached picture. Moreover, he came increasingly to depend on assistants to create his paintings. In June 1963 he employed Gerard Malanga to work full-time on the silkscreen paintings and gradually other assistants joined the payroll. They operated like the staff in a graphic design office. When Warhol started work on his Marilyn Monroes, for instance, Malanga and Billy Name performed most of the work, like cutting things and arranging the screens, while he walked along the rows asking questions like "What colour do you think would be nice?" Warhol made a deliberate point of his non-involvement, believing that someone else should be able to do all his paintings for him. He claimed that the reason he used assistants and worked the way he did was because he wanted to be a machine and create a totally "neutral" look, devoid of any human touch. However, the truth is he could easily have contracted out the job if he had really wanted an authentically commercial look. As it was, he preferred to include the occasional human error, such as the misalignment of the screens, the uneven inking, and the intermittent smears.
Marilyn Monroes Lips (1962, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC) has the look of an imperfect print run, where the black line and the colour screen do not quite fit together and the quality of inking varies widely. The banal repetition created by mass-market commercial processes seems to conflict with an (albeit passive) individual presence in both this painting and also Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962, Museum of Modern Art, NY). The repetition lends the images an anonymous, impassive appearance while specific features in each imperfectly fabricated unit manage to assert themselves, creating an awkward dissonance between the mechanical facade and the sense of the individual buried within it. Thus both the observer and the artist are reduced to being nothing more than passive voyeurs, experiencing life as an assembly line of mass-produced images.
The growing number of portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and other movie stars had agreat deal to do with Warhol's enthusiasm for the glamour and glitter of Hollywood. In Andy Warhol (1968), his exhibition catalogue for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, he stated: "I love Hollywood. It's beautiful. Everybody is plastic. I want to be plastic." He was the ultimate fan, the ultimate consumer. Yet his "Marilyn Monroes" also have a dark side. They were made following the actress's suicide in August 1962. What's more, the mechanical repetition of her portrait makes her seem transparently superficial, denying her any sense of individuality beneath the surface image. It constitutes a frightening depersonalization of a human being, and perhaps reflects the artist's own image of himself. As late as 1975, for instance, he wrote: "I am still haunted by the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing no one, nothing."
During TV coverage of a national tragedy like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe or the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy (all of which Warhol painted obsessively) the same video clips are played over and over for days on end. Warhol's "Marilyns" and other multi-image portraits have the same anaesthetizing repetition.
In 1963 Warhol began work on a disaster series - for example, Saturday Disaster (1964, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University - that further developed the morbid quality of the "Marilyns." He based the series on gruesome police and tabloid photographs of car crash victims, the electric chair, and the atomic bomb. He reproduced the images in a variety of colours and decorative patterns. These images are disturbing not only because of their horrifying explicitness, but also because Warhol's detachment suggests a horrible depersonalization: an emotional void reflecting the alienation of life in the sixties.
In 1962 and 1963 Warhol created several portraits of the Neo-Dada artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom he revered for having risen from poverty to fame. In a sense, the example of Rauschenberg exemplified Warhol's celebrated saying that 'in the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.' Warhol was greatly attracted to the notion of celebrity as a sort of consumer product that anybody can possess.
At the end of 1963 the Warhol studio was relocated to an old factory on East Forty-seventh Street. "The Factory," as it came to be known, graually evolved into place filled with chic fashion personalities and other "beautiful people", drag queens, along with members of the music underground, many of them occupied with drugs and/or bizarre behaviour. Warhol, it seemed, needed to be surrounded by oddities as well as artists, by decadence and debauchery as well as fine art. In any event, Warhol was still producing in 1964. Indeed, looking back, many art critics are still convinced that Warhol's important work dates from 1960 through 1964.
By 1965 Warhol's growing fame was attracting other New York celebrities, who wanted to see and be seen at The Factory. At the same time the media hounded Warhol, while visitors and hangers-on jostled for his attention. During the autumn of 1965, at the opening of Warhol's exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, four thousand people sqeezed into two small rooms and staff had to remove the paintings off the walls for security. It was an art exhibition without art!
"I wondered what it was that had made all those people scream," Warhol later recalled, in the book Popism (1980, Warhol & Hackett). "It was incredible to think of it happening at an art opening. But then, we weren't just at the art exhibit - we were the art exhibit."
In 1966 The Factory crowd began to congregate in the evenings at a restaurant on Union Square known as Max's Kansas City. It was popular with artists and writers and its back rooms hosted a circus of exhibitionism, drugs, and sexuality. Celebrity visitors included Truman Capote, Bobby Kennedy, along with influential figures from the city's establishment as well as its Underground. But Warhol remained the catalyst: the presence that inspired or passively provoked people to live out their fantasies, while he watched or took photographs.
One of New York's most prestigious galleries of postmodernist art was owned by Leo Castelli. Warhol had always wanted to have a solo show there (Roy Lichtenstein had had one there in 1962), and Castelli finally gave him one in 1964. His first show, was of the "Flowers" in which Warhol moved further away from naturalism in his palette - not that his earlier works were in any strong sense naturalistic, but he tended either to use a scale of values that corresponded to nature, or a more artificial scale with at least a residual resemblance. From 1964, he began to incorporate wholly non-naturalistic colours in his palette: for example, painting turquoise and pink "Campbell's Soup Cans" instead of red and white ones and creating multi-tone "Self Portraits" with a blue face and yellow hair.
By 1966, having become New York's leading art celebrity of the sixties, with an exhibition in the most fashionable gallery, Warhol was becoming bored with painting and virtually stopped, preferring to focus on promoting a psychedelic, multi-media performance called "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable," featuring the rock band Velvet Underground. He also turned increasingly to film, shooting The Chelsea Girls (1966), the first financially successful, if supremely boring, underground film. This was followed by a number of appalling films that failed totally to justify their artistic billings. This was no surprise, since his early films were uncompromisingly Warholesque in their passivity. All he did was simply to point the camera at someone and let it run, there was no sound track, as in his 6-hour, actionless movie entitled Sleep (1963). In Eat (1963) the camera focuses continuously for 45 minutes on pop artist Robert Indiana as he devours a mushroom. In Empire (1964) the camera focuses rigidly for 8 hours on the top of the Empire State Building.
In 1967 The Factory moved to 33 Union Square West and the scene became more and more weird until June 1968 when Warhol was shot and seriously wounded by a groupie Valerie Solanas, who had a small part in one of his films. The carnival atmosphere ended abruptly. Warhol was pronounced dead on the operating table but luckily revived. After spending 8 weeks in hospital he returned to The Factory a frightened man. Despite his fear that he might lose his creativity without the stimulus of carnival-type chaos around him, access to the studio was tightened. The Factory concentrated on mass-producing art that would sell: that is, commercial souvenirs of the avant-garde that Warhol called "Business Art.
In fact, Warhol's artworks had been produced using assembly-line methods since 1963 - during the mid-60s The Factory manufactured up to 80 silkscreen paintings per day day and at one point a film every week. In any event, by mid-1969, Warhol's fine art had largely dried up. As Brigid Polk, one of Warhol's studio assistants, was quoted as saying: "I've been doing it all for the last year and a half. Andy doesn't do art anymore. He's bored with it." It was true, largely. Warhol had turned his attention to other enterprises such as Interview, his high-society gossip magazine.
During the early 1970s Warhol rekindled his interest in painting with a series of society portraits and pictures of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong - eg. Mao (1973, Art Institute of Chicago). By now, Warhol had become an internationally known artist-celebrity - the most talked-about artist after Picasso, and a regular guest at A-list social occasions and cultural events. As the Vietnam endgame began to unfold, alongside the political and criminal revelations of Watergate, both the very rich and the counterculture protest movement concerned themselves with symbols. Warhol's paintings of Chairman Mao amused wealthy art collectors while at the same time confirming the ascendancy of Western capitalism by transforming the iconic champion of the world revolution into a consumer product for the rich.
More portrait paintings appeared. Indeed, Warhol's society silkscreen portraits of the seventies revitalized the genre of portrait art. Many were printed onto prepared grounds of textural brushwork in a standard format of two 40 X 40-inch panels, and many of the subjects took on the appearance of dimensionless, plastic objects.
In the seventies and eighties, Warhol took on more advertising and design commissions. He even became a consumer product himself, when he was featured in the 1986 Christmas catalogue for Neiman-Marcus: it advertised a portrait session with Warhol at a cost of $35,000. Warhol's intensifying association with status and money exploited the superficiality and materialism of American consumer culture in the 70s and 80s, as individuals everywhere began to feel more alienated with the unreality of life. As the artist himself admitted: "I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts." A sad admission from the high priest of pop art, who made a career out of revealing the "truth" about modern society.
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