Pop Goes The Easel
Genius, revolutionary or just a strange man in a silver wig? Delve into the world of Andy Warhol, arguably one of the most superficial artists in history
It seems every 15 minutes, we are reminded of Andy Warhol’s fame. Thirty years after his death, the artist is still larger than life. And it’s bizarre, really, that in today’s jaded world, he still has so much currency. After all, we are immune to lambs being pickled and then called art; we are used to seeing a rectangle of bricks heralded as a work of genius; and we don’t care if an unmade bed passes off as a masterpiece. Shock pop culture, especially in the world of art, comes and goes every 15 seconds now. But Warhol, of course, was the first to do it.
Much Ado About Andy
When he first hung a print of a soup can on the wall, the world started to hang on to his every word. In the 1960s, no one had seen anything like this strange man with his silver wigs. What was he doing hanging up giant pictures of soup tins, bleached Mick Jaggers and electric chairs—and then calling it art? He had to be joking, right? And Warhol probably was. Still, his was a brave new vision that celebrated the neglected beauty of commercial art and a generation’s obsession with celebrity. Today, nobody gives a Damien Hirst-butchered cow what artists do. But in the 1960s, everything Warhol did caused uproar.
It is that legacy that continues to magnify the pop artist’s profile today, on the 30th anniversary of his death. And he would have loved it. “Publicity is like eating peanuts,” he said. “Once you start, you can’t stop.” From beyond the grave, his voice has a resonance that sounds fresh even today, particularly when he talked about his art. “You’d be surprised how many people want to hang an electric chair in their room,” he once said. “Especially if it matches the curtains.”
What would have really delighted the artist would be the amount of money his pictures command today. In 2008, his Eight Elvises sold for US$109 million at auction, and five years later, Silver Car Crash achieved US$107 million. For Warhol, making money was art, and good business was the best art of all. “When someone told me to paint what I loved most, that’s when I started to paint money,” he said. “People ask if I’m shocked people pay thousands for my paintings. Why should I? It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Avarice aside, Warhol’s paintings always struck a popular chord. When the images of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly or Bianca Jagger were produced in the ’60s and ’70s, they echoed religious iconography and tapped into the universal appeal of celebrity long before reality shows, celebrity Twitter-storms and curated Instagram feeds. Warhol even used methods of mass production to “paint” his works at The Factory, employing “art workers” to create his canvases.
Today there are still thousands of problems associated with authenticating a genuine Warhol. He was great at “adding value” to his paintings simply by being dismissive, superficial, contrary, annoying, controversial and bored. “Art is what you can get away with… I like empty walls. As soon as you put something on them they look terrible. For me, art is wasted space,” he said defiantly.
The result was that the public and critics loved and hated him in equal measure. Some, naturally, hated him more than others. In 1968, Valerie Solanis, who had founded the Society For Cutting Up Men (or SCUM), shot Warhol in the chest, almost killing him. It was another great opportunity for self-publicity and Warhol obviously milked it. Photographer Richard Avedon came to capture the image on film and Alice Neel painted him looking vulnerable in his bandages. Even Warhol himself produced a self-portrait of the question mark-shaped wound. “If I’d gone ahead and died, I would be a cult figure now,” he said. “I’ve got so many stitches, I look like an Yves Saint Laurent dress.”
Pop Art Legacy
His Slovak immigrant parents would never have understood such a fashionable reference when Warhol was born in 1928. But by the time their son had turned 20 and graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, fame and fashion were all he could think of.
When he arrived in New York to illustrate fashion features in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, he instantly became the most sought-after illustrator in the city. By 1956, he was hosting exhibitions and joining group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and printing images of Coke bottles and Brillo boxes.
During this period, Warhol’s influence was omnipotent and he increasingly became the focal point for bizarre characters, inspirational musicians, debauched behaviour and tragic young deaths. Icons of the age—Jim Morrison, the Warhol-sponsored Velvet Underground, Robert De Niro, The Rolling Stones, David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton—were magnified by their association with him. However, Warhol was not a social party animal himself; he was a natural outsider. “I’m the type who’d like to sit home and watch every party that I’m invited to on a monitor in my bedroom,” he said.
Warhol died in 1987 aged 59 from a heart attack after undergoing a gall-bladder operation. The operation had been fatally flawed from the start and the artist’s estate successfully brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital that was settled out of court for US$3 million.
When the settlement was made, Warhol’s estate was found to be worth more than half a billion dollars. The selling of the 10,000 contents in his home was described as the garage sale of the century and included such items as a Superman touch-tone phone, Eskimo bone, prehistoric pottery, World War II medals and wooden merry-go-round horses. It all felt so, well, expected.
Now as the world re-examines his work on the eve of the 30th anniversary of his death through documentaries, books and a stunning new exhibition at the museum set up in his honour in Pittsburgh (see below), it is worth considering Warhol’s own thoughts on his legacy. “I don’t think my art has any lasting value,” he said. “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
The exhibition Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei developed by The Warhol and National Gallery of Victoria runs from 4 June to 28 August at The Andy Warhol Museum Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (www.warhol.org). Images in this story were taken from the exhibition.
Box: (Chris, feel free to leave this out if you don’t have space)
World according to Andy
- Defining his love of commercial art, Warhol said, “When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.”
- Many of Warhol’s films celebrated the ordinariness of life. One called Sleep featured a man sleeping for six hours, while in Empire, a camera was focused on the Empire State Building during the night of 25 July 1964.
- “They are experimental films. I call them that because I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Warhol.
- In 1968, Warhol sent an impostor to represent him on a lecture tour. Apparently this was all about pop art premising “the belief that the surfaces of things are what really matter”.
- When Warhol was asked why he constantly painted soup cans, he replied, “Campbell’s made me. On most days of my childhood, my mother would make me a can of tomato soup for lunch.”
- The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh opened in 1994 at an industrial building that cost US$12.3 million to renovate.
- “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films, there I am,” he said. “There’s nothing behind it.”