Andy Warhol

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Andy Warhol

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Article abstract: More than any other artist of his time, Warhol created the world of American Pop Art. His many paintings and sculptures reflect the commercialism, affluence, and materialism of postwar American society, serving both as legitimate works of art and as artifacts of an era in America’s development as a consumerist nation.

Early Life

Andy Warhol’s birth date and place are something of a mystery. Warhol (born Andrew Warhola) provides no information on the matter, so any definitive statement is dubious. Based on his early years and college dates, one can estimate that he was born in 1928 in Pennsylvania, to Czech immigrant parents, Ondrej and Julia Warhola, the second of their three sons. Ondrej Warhola worked for a coal-mining company, a job that often took him from home as he traveled to various mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Warhol’s interest in commercial art began when he spent his summers as a youngster in Pennsylvania copying newspaper and magazine advertisements; he pursued that interest throughout his high school and college years. He was graduated from Schenley High School in Pittsburgh in 1945 and worked in the summers for the Joseph Horne Company department-store chain in Pittsburgh, arranging window displays. In the autumn of 1945, he enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology; the rigor of his academic courses there made college difficult for him but he met that challenge and was graduated from the school with a bachelor of fine arts degree in pictorial design in June of 1949.

With his college art degree in hand, Warhol hoped to find a position as an art teacher. During the summer of 1949, he moved to New York City to establish himself, an excellent draftsman, as a commercial artist. His style at that time was heavily influenced by fashion magazines, and his early commissions were illustrations for an article in Glamour and for women’s shoe advertisements. Early in his career, Warhol lived among other artists who were also seeking a profession in New York and matured in that environment of avant-garde art.

By the early 1950’s, Warhol gained some standing and success as a commercial artist. I. Miller Shoes chose him as the chief illustrator for their advertisements, and Warhol gained popularity in New York, becoming a very successful, well-paid artist. In addition to advertisements, he received commissions for book illustrations and jackets, for corporate designs, for magazine covers and illustrations, and for record-album covers. As his work became well-known, he won several design awards for his commercial art, including the Art Directors Club Medal. He invited himself along when a close friend took a tour around the world in 1956. That experience deepened Warhol’s sources of ideas for his art and helped him to realize the uniqueness of America in the world.

At the same time that he was producing successful commercial art for advertisements and various publications, Warhol tried to exhibit and sell drawings and paintings which he viewed as serious art. Basically shy and quiet, Warhol shared his art with only a few close friends. These works used cartoon or comic-book figures as their subjects. His style at the time was mixed; some works reflected an abstract expressionist influence; others had hard edges, clear figures, and clean lines. To knowledgeable observers and art critics, the former style seemed trite and derivative and the latter seemed fresh and exciting. Warhol took the advice of others and concentrated on the new style as he and a few other New York artists developed the American Pop Art school in the late 1950’s.

Life’s Work

Warhol stands foremost among American Pop...

(This entire section contains 2050 words.)

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artists. Although he was not the originator of Pop Art or the only Pop artist in the early 1960’s, he is the archetypical Pop artist for many Americans. Part of Warhol’s fame is a result of his outrageous behavior and part is a result of his superb and innovative art. His career has included achievements as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and celebrity. In each of these areas, he captured the spirit of affluent, postwar American society.

Warhol’s first notoriety came with a show of his soup-can paintings in Los Angeles in 1961-1962. Along with Roy Lichtenstein, he established the American Pop Art world with canvases depicting ordinary objects such as soup cans or comic-book characters. By the fall of 1962, Warhol was noticed enough by the art community to warrant a gallery show in New York City; this show, too, displayed paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. His Campbell’s Soup Can (1962) represented an advanced consumer-oriented technological society in the way that eighteenth century Dutch still lifes represented commonplace scenes of that era. Art critics were intrigued by Warhol’s clear, clean, and superficial works, almost as laconic and unpretentious as their creator. Warhol’s silk-screen technique of reproducing the images on his canvases further linked his work to the mechanical, technological world in which he and his viewers lived.

As he became more successful and renowned as a creative artist, Warhol established a studio loft known as The Factory (which had several addresses in New York City over the years from 1960 to 1985). This workplace attracted several celebrities and near-celebrities who engaged as much in theatrics as in the production of artworks. Warhol thrived on the interactions he had with various visitors to The Factory and found them a stimulus and an inspiration for his work.

In the early 1960’s, his art increasingly depicted banal, ordinary, shocking, and vulgar scenes from American life. In addition to soup cans, his paintings included subjects such as popular film stars (as in Marilyn Monroe, 1962, and Liz, 1963), Coca-Cola bottles, race riots, automobile wrecks, cows, and flowers. By 1964, Warhol had exhibited Pop-sculpture replicas of such commercial items as a Brillo soap pad, Kellogg’s corn flakes, and Mott’s apple juice cartons. These paintings and sculptures served only to reinforce Warhol’s reputation as an outrageous yet highly talented artist whose unusual subject matter brought him notoriety. By 1965, Warhol was as much of a celebrity as his artworks.

With his superstar status increasing by the mid-1960’s, Warhol decided to retire from painting and to focus on filmmaking. He began making films with boring and banal themes as early as 1963, an activity which perpetuated his celebrity status. The Factory became a center for pop and would-be pop stars and attracted a wide variety of glamorous people, as well as an assortment of characters in the art and performing worlds. Although many of Warhol’s films, such as Sleep (1963), Eat (1963), and Empire (1965), were lengthy depictions of the most mundane activity or object, some of his works anticipated future film themes or poked fun at certain subjects. Lonesome Cowboys (1968) treated homosexuality when it was taboo as a subject for commercial films and, at the same time, challenged the cowboy myth of courageous, macho riders of the range. With such works as Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), Warhol focused on sexual themes in films which were precursors of the pornographic film market of the 1970’s and 1980’s. By the mid-1970’s, his Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974) and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974) enjoyed commercial success as satiric yet serious works. From 1963 to 1974, he had been involved in the production of more than sixty films of varying quality and subject matter.

In 1968, Warhol’s celebrity status nearly cost him his life. A disturbed visitor to The Factory shot him, inflicting serious internal wounds. Warhol’s slow recovery included a two-month hospital stay and a turn in a new direction, his post-Pop period. From 1970 onward, he increasingly turned to producing portraits of cult figures, prominent persons, and personal friends. These portraits, of figures such as Mao Tse-tung, Philip Johnson, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Carter, and Merce Cunningham display a softer, more delicate imagery than Warhol’s earlier Pop Art paintings. His art of the 1970’s moved closer to an abstract expressionist style and away from the figurative or realistic style of his work in the 1960’s. In 1981, he undertook a series of myth paintings in which the subject matter treated mythical figures from popular-culture sources, such as advertisements, comic strips, and films. These works included Dagwood, Mickey Mouse, and Superman. Later, in 1983, he created a series of endangered-species paintings which depicted various threatened wildlife. As in all of his work, Warhol selected subjects with great popular imagery and treated the symbol and image as much as he does the real object itself.


As the preeminent American Pop artist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Andy Warhol enjoyed greater popularity in the public mind than his art. His treatment of ordinary subjects in an unemotional and passionless manner alienated many viewers and startled others. His nonchalant behavior and celebrity status convinced many Americans that Warhol was all style and no substance. Yet, for postwar American society, he stands as a significant figure—as both an artist and a social commentator.

Warhol fits into the vernacular art tradition of American culture. By celebrating the ordinary, the commonplace, and the unpretentious, he has created realistic works which reflect the surface and mundane aspects of a technological and democratic society. With that achievement, he stands with earlier realist American artists, such as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, who chose contemporary, ordinary, unheroic themes for their art. Like them, Warhol emphasizes elements of everyday life.

As a social commentator (a role he denied), Warhol has the uncanny ability to mirror the trends and fads of his time. Recognizing the elements of an urban mass society heavily influenced by symbols, images, and the mass media, he has made those symbols and images the subjects of his art. For Warhol and other Pop artists, these images have taken on a reality of their own, not only shaped by but also reshaping popular culture. Warhol has therefore left social and cultural historians visual documents of the significant elements from America’s consumerist society of the postwar era—an important legacy.


Alloway, Lawrence. American Pop Art. New York: Collier Books, 1974. A well-illustrated treatise on significant American Pop artists, including Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, by one of the leading interpreters of that art school. Places Warhol in the context of American Pop Art with a full discussion of that art movement.

Coplans, John. Andy Warhol. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970. A thoroughly illustrated work on Warhol’s painting, sculpture, and film of the 1960’s. Useful for Coplans’ perspectives on the whole of Warhol’s work in that decade, although limited because it does not treat Warhol’s later accomplishments.

Lippard, Lucy R. Pop Art. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1966. A fine survey of 1960’s Pop Art with many illustrations. Includes chapters on the British origins of Pop Art, the New York and California schools, and the European scene. Helps to place Warhol in a national and international context.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Late Modern: The Visual Arts Since 1945. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. Lucie-Smith presents developments in modern art after 1945 and places Pop Art in the larger context of Western art in the postwar world. Not limited to Pop Art, this work is a well-illustrated survey of various schools of art since 1945 and sets Pop Art into a larger framework of modern art.

Ratcliff, Carter. Andy Warhol. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983. A thorough treatment of Warhol’s life and work by a distinguished art critic and teacher. Contains an excellent bibliography, Warhol chronology, film list, and exhibition list. Particularly useful for information on Warhol’s post-Pop activities. Fully illustrated.

Taylor, Joshua C. American as Art. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. A fine survey of American art throughout the United States’ history; a chapter on art of the 1960’s and 1970’s places Warhol’s work in the larger context of American art. Useful for background about the developments in American art.

Warhol, Andy, and Pat Hackett. POPism: The Warhol Sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. Warhol’s own musings about Pop Art and his activities as celebrity and artist in the 1960’s. This year-by-year diary of Warhol’s activities must be read with some skepticism, because Warhol is intentionally unreliable in his recollections.

Wilson, Simon. Pop. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron, 1978. A brief, well-illustrated survey of Pop Art in an inexpensive edition. Designed chiefly for classroom use, with an excellent, succinct text to accompany the illustrations.


Critical Essays