When pop artist Andy Warhol predicted in 1965 that “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” he could not have known that someday large segments of the American public would be spending hours making sure they got those allotted minutes of fame—and more—by busily updating their every move in the statusphere of social media on the Internet.
Warhol spent a lot of time trying to become famous himself. He actively sought publicity, not only as a painter but as a filmmaker, author, impresario, and man-about-town. He was fascinated with celebrities and was out every night hobnobbing with them in New York City clubs, restaurants, and galleries. Indeed, he was as well known for his life as for his art, transforming himself—Andrew Warhola from Pittsburgh, born of immigrant Czech parents—into an icon of the 1960s life-style as well as transforming the art world with what came to be known as pop art.
Critic Arthur C. Danto, author of a recent book about him, says, “Warhol was to become the artist of the second half of the twentieth century.” Warhol was both artist and icon, helping to plant “the seeds of a visual and indeed a cultural revolution,” Danto says:
What makes him an American icon is that his subject matter is always something that the ordinary American understands: everything, or nearly everything he made art out of came straight out of the daily lives of very ordinary Americans.... The tastes and values of ordinary persons all at once were inseparable from advanced art.
Everyday things like Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo boxes, dollar bills, Coke bottles, and innumerable pictures of celebrities became in Warhol’s hands art images the public could relate to immediately, real objects from the material world and people from the tabloid media that had never shown up quite so blatantly in art before. Hung in major museums and fetching huge prices, Warhol’s work came to define an art that took its cues from and seemed to parody American capitalist culture. Certainly he had talent as an artist, but it was his genius for generating buzz and building a kind of “brand” for his art that catapulted him to the forefront of the artistic revolution known as pop art.
His kind of art suited the 1960s, frenzied as they were in a youthquake of antiestablishment rebellion poised to overthrow traditional mores and authority at every turn. Pop art took over from then-reigning abstract expressionism and began to show American consumers the kind of world they were really living in, one populated with things off the grocery shelves and people they read about in the daily papers. Warhol was not the only one serving up pop culture. Artists like Roy Lichtenstein with his huge paintings of comic book scenarios, Jasper Johns with blowups of the American flag, and Robert Rauschenberg with collages of cultural flotsam were already out there mining the territory. Pop art could legitimately trace a lineage back to the anti-art philosophy of early 20th-century Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp who, a generation earlier, had shown the way with his “readymade” objects like a bicycle wheel and a urinal offered as art.
However, the established art world was shocked, shocked, that such “low art” presumed to knock at the door of “high art,” viewing pop art as a passing 1960s fad. But even 30 years later when the Museum of Modern Art staged its “High and Low” exhibition in 1990—art from newspapers and advertisements and cartoons, shown alongside famous masterworks—it drew almost universal condemnation from establishment art critics. On the other hand, the public, and wealthy collectors like Ethel and Robert Scull, responded to pop art with money and enthusiasm as Warhol continued to dismantle the difference between high and low art, offering up 25 paintings of Marilyn Monroe, screen prints of Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral, and wallpaper with cows all over it.
Major art museums in the United States and Europe were showing his work, and critics like Arthur Danto had to come to terms with it. He said it was “a transformative experience” viewing Warhol’s Brillo boxes for the first time at the Stable Gallery in April 1964. “It turned me into a philosopher of art.” But Warhol’s art presented a problem: “how to define art”? Many critics dismissed it: those Brillo boxes were not art. For Danto and other critics, it meant a new conception: if these were art, could anything be art?
Warhol was not the first to raise, in its most radical form, the question of art. He redefined the form of the question. The new form did not ask, What is art? It asked this: What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?
Danto’s answer was that Warhol had tested the boundaries, turning “mass art into high art” and painting pictures of “what we are,” “the human condition.” His art gave us the world of common human experience, turning the low art of the vernacular into an iconic image that marked a radical, fundamental shift in the traditional philosophic sense of art as something removed from experience. In a sense, Warhol gave us back what we already were, embodying “a concept of life that embraced the values of an era we are still living in.” By changing the way we understand art, Danto says, Warhol became “the defining artist of his era.”
Not everyone felt that way. Other critics, like Robert Hughes at Time magazine, thought Warhol’s art was banal and boring, “a baleful mimicry of advertising” with “the most cunning sort of dandyism,” allied to “Warhol’s calculatedly grungy view of reality,” Hughes said in his book about modern art, The Shock of the New. At the time Warhol burst onto the scene in the early 1960s, art had been immured in a chilly, private kind of painting, abstract expressionism, which had made New York instead of Paris, for the first time, the center of the art universe. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Mark Rothko’s color fieldwork, and Willem de Kooning’s abstract women set the style standard. But abstract expressionism was losing steam and pop art was ready to pump things up again.
Andy Warhol had started his art career in New York City in 1949 as an illustrator, doing whimsical pen-and-ink drawings of shoes for I. Miller and window displays for Fifth Avenue department store Bonwit Teller, featuring peculiar subjects drawn from tabloid ads like prosthetic limbs and nose jobs as background to store mannequins dressed in the latest fashions. No one would have thought it art at the time, but later these drawings became important enough to be exhibited in a major Berlin art museum. Meanwhile, Warhol, who by this time had dropped the final “a” from his name, was becoming very successful as an illustrator for magazines like Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar, winning commendations from the Art Directors’ Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. This period of his career seems to have given him the taste for commercial culture that would characterize his later work.
By 1952, he had his first solo exhibition, at the Hugo Gallery, with 15 drawings inspired by the short stories of Truman Capote, one of the many celebrities whom he was always trying obsessively to befriend. He turned from pen-and-ink to paint, doing pictures of comic strip characters like Superman, Popeye, and Dick Tracy, and paintings of Coca-Cola bottles, none of which he could persuade a gallery to exhibit. He kept on painting, now doing pictures of the Campbell Soup cans he had been opening every day for lunch. He produced a series of all 32 flavors, done in acrylics on canvas. Finally, in 1962, these caught the eye of the Fergus Gallery in Los Angeles, which mounted an exhibition of them, lining them up on a shelf all around the gallery. Warhol, with this radically different kind of art, was suddenly in the news, partly for shock value, partly for what people sensed was a new direction. Though he sold them for $100 each at the time, these paintings bring millions today. Warhol has said the Campbell’s Soup can paintings are the ones for which he wanted to be remembered.
He was also learning a new technique, silk screen, which enabled him to produce multiple copies of his paintings in a kind of assembly-line fashion by screening paint onto any number of canvases over and over. He began turning out not only more Campbell’s Soup cans this way, but now he could do multiples of subjects like dollar bills, automobile crashes, the electric chair, Marilyn Monroe, and dozens more of celebrity portraits. At last he had found a method to mechanize the art process, something he had long sought to do. His assistant at the time said that Andy wanted “to become totally mechanical in his work the way a packaging factory would normally silkscreen information on cardboard boxes.” It was a method quite appropriate to his whole conception of art, which now he could mass-produce.
By this time, he had made enough money to buy a four-story town house on the Upper East Side, where his mother, Julia, came to live with him (and did much of the lettering on the soup cans for him). Warhol also wanted to find a separate studio that he would call “The Factory” in keeping with his new assembly-line approach to art. The first Factory was located on 47th Street in midtown Manhattan and was known as the “Silver Factory,” decorated entirely in tinfoil and silver paint by one of Warhol’s many hangers-on, Billy Name.
It became not only a place for producing his art but also a major party scene for Warhol’s “Superstars,” a ragtag group of socialites, musicians, drag queens, drug addicts, and performers he called his “workers,” including Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling, Baby Jane Holzer, and Ultra Violet, who became famous just for being outrageous denizens of the Factory. Warhol started to film this menagerie, producing some memorable if less than fascinating movies, a sort of visual diary of what was going on in the Factory, including a five-hour film, Sleep, where his boyfriend at the time just sleeps, and one of the Empire State Building, Empire, an unrelenting and unchanging view out the window that is eight hours long. Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, showing his Factory cast of characters at the Chelsea Hotel, did enjoy some critical success. The flavor of these films and their nonaction were typical of Warhol, who cultivated a deadpan look and acted dumb on purpose in front of reporters to confuse them. He pretended not to care about what he was doing and how he looked, though his appearance was carefully arranged with what became his signature, a silver wig and oversized, clear-framed glasses.
He was also producing album covers, including the debut album for the Rolling Stones. He started a magazine, Interview, which featured Q& A interviews with celebrities and which is still in publication today, the fame machine as active as ever. Books by Warhol include The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B, and Back Again, published in 1975 and Popism: The Warhol Sixties in 1980, both “written” on tape recorder and transcribed by his secretary Pat Hackett.
All the hoopla and frenzy of the Factory also attracted various hangers-on, among them Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist who had acted in one of Warhol’s films and who walked into the Factory on June 3, 1968, pulled out a pistol, and shot Warhol and curator Mario Amaya. Warhol was seriously wounded with gunshots through his lung and abdomen and nearly died. Doctors opened his chest and massaged his heart to revive him, then operated to remove his damaged spleen. Warhol was never really the same after that. He became much more cautious and stoic, his friends said. Up to then, he said, his life felt like living in a TV show. Now it was real. Solanas, claiming she shot him because “he had too much control over my life,” turned herself in to the police and was eventually tried and sent to prison for three years, the first of which was spent in a psychiatric institution.
Warhol was meticulous about money and wrote down everything he spent. He was a collector of all kinds of objects, including 175 cookie jars, 313 watches, 57 Navajo blankets, 210 Bakelite bracelets, 1,659 pieces of Russel Wright pottery, and 170 chairs, to say nothing of French Art Deco furniture, 1940s Cartier bracelets and brooches, Puiforcat silver, Tiffany Art Nouveau lamps, and more, all offered for sale in a much-anticipated Sotheby’s auction in 1988 (the cookie jars alone brought in $250,000). Warhol kept a diary of what he did everyday, eventually hiring his secretary, Pat Hackett, to transcribe his tape-recorded accounts. This became The Andy Warhol Diaries, an 807-page compendium of everything he did, including the day before he died, unexpectedly, after a gallbladder operation in 1987 in New York Hospital.
He had been born the youngest of a family of four children to Ondrej (Andrew), an immigrant coal miner, and his wife Julia in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was six, Warhol was bedridden for a time with a nervous disorder that was said to be an effect of scarlet fever. He later described this period as one of the most important in his life, allowing him to draw, listen to the radio, and use his imagination. He clearly had artistic talent, and somehow the family managed to send him to the School of Fine Arts at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). When he graduated in 1949, he and a fellow student, Philip Pearlstein who was later to become a major artist himself, took an overnight train to Manhattan, found a place to live, and launched their dreamed-of careers in art.
Both of them would become successful and acclaimed painters in the next 20 years, Pearlstein for his paintings of the human form, Warhol for his much less elevated and more saleable subjects. The most money ever paid for a Warhol was $100 million in 2008 for his silk-screened, wall-eater 12-foot canvas, Eight Elvises. Warhol paintings continue to come to market, including a Campbell’s Soup can painting estimated to sell for $30 million to $50 million at a Christie’s auction in 2010 and a black-and-white painting of a Coca-Cola bottle—“pop” art, literally—with an estimate of up to $25 million for a Sotheby’s auction the day before.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, part of Carnegie-Mellon University, Warhol’s alma mater, has the largest collection of his work. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York City donated 3,000 Warhol works and the entire Warhol archive to the museum, including an entire run of Interview magazine, 4,000 audio tapes, film, video, scrapbooks, photographs, personal items, and the 610 Time Capsules Warhol obsessively collected and sealed in boxes full of phone messages, invitations, fan letters, and other ephemera defining his everyday existence.
Like an Egyptian pharaoh buried with all his possessions in case he needed them in the afterlife, Warhol meticulously documented everything he did, saving every scrap of evidence that he existed for 58 years. “Before I was shot,” he said in his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, “I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life.” Death came as a complete surprise; he feared it, painted it, stalked it. It came too soon, but in his afterlife Andy Warhol was famous enough, way beyond his allotted 15 minutes, to leave a lasting impression on the United States and major changes on the art world.
Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Danto, Arthur C. Andy Warhol. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Hackett, Pat, ed. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Warner Books, 1989.
Scherman, Tony and David Dalton. Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol. New York: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Warhol, Andy and Pat Hackett. Popism: The Warhol Sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.