Out of the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1960s came an artist who became the icon of the free spirit. Andy Warhol introduced the world, and particularly an artistically fertile America, to the idea of life as an art. Gone were the days of portraiture and classical sculpture — this was the era of the movie star, the celebrity, and consumerism. Warhol looked at the life surrounding him and portrayed it on his canvases and in his films, stating that “if you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Yet, to critics, the most intriguing aspect of Warhol was his private life, an indefinable mixture of artistic creativity, mystery, and sexual scandal. It is this very inexpressibility that comes through in the artist’s work, giving Warhol an aura of cool acceptability and ambiguity.
Born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928, Warhol was one of three boys in a Czechoslovakian immigrant working-class family. Growing up during the Great Depression in Forest City, Pennsylvania, Warhol faced an unstable household, further complicated by the death of his father in 1942. Three years later, Warhol dropped out of high school and enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he received his B.A. in pictorial design in 1949.
After graduation, Warhol moved to New York, living in a co-ed basement apartment. He was a strange one to the others, being very quiet, young, and having an unusually white pallor. Angry with Warhol for not speaking to her, one of the female occupants of the apartment once threw an egg at him, which hit him in the head. The quiet young artist spent most of his time drawing and taking his work around to agencies in a brown paper bag, as he did not have enough funds for a portfolio.
Intrigued by the odd character who walked into her office holding a brown paper bag, Glamour art director Tina Fredericks commissioned Warhol to design shoes, inadvertently launching him into the world of commercial arts. Gaining the attention of exclusive shoe store I. Miller, Warhol was soon offered an appointment in their art department.
In 1949, Warhol changed the spelling of his name because of a credit that mistakenly read “Drawings by Warhol” for the article “Success is a Job in New York”. Around this time, his eyes began to bother him, and Tina Fredericks urged him to go to an oculist. Having been told he had “lazy eyes,” Warhol wore opaque glasses that had a tiny pinhole for him to see through — these became his signature accessory, even though they were hideous. Warhol dyed his hair a distinct silver, showing a flair for the dramatic that set him apart from other artists.
With the name change and his position in the commercial field, the intrepid artist soon created a niche for himself, becoming known for his exploration of the shoe as a reflection of the person. Warhol captured the essence of various people in his shoes, creating the likeness of celebrities and friends on paper. It did not matter if the shoe features were in the right places — I. Miller loved his drawings. He received the Art Directors’ Club Medal for his shoe designs in 1957.
Earlier, in 1952, the artist had his first solo exhibition, showing pictures drawn for Truman Capote’s short stories; unfortunately, the exhibit did not make much of an impact in the art world. By this time however, Warhol had an agent, Fritzie Miller, who got him contracts with big magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He worked with Eugene Moore to create window displays for Bonwit’s, a department store. The introspective artist, who wore only old clothes, radiated a charm and mystery in both his manner and work that began to be noticed by people in the business.
Velvet Underground Album Cover
During this period of development in his life, Warhol came into contact with other cultures, both local and abroad, that were to have an influence on his later artwork. In the mid-1950s, he was part of a theatre crowd that focused primarily on the plays of Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht; Warhol especially admired Brecht’s idea of realism and would later apply the philosophy to his work. Influences from abroad came through his six-week tour of Europe and Asia, where he began his own collection of modern art, buying works from artists such as Joan Miró and Larry Rivers.
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol combined all of these early influences and experiences into a style that was distinctly his own and yet allowed others to be involved in the creative process. This came to be known in art history as American Pop art, a movement against the “original” as the bastion of the elite. Warhol’s outlook on artwork focused not on the end result, the “original work of art,” but on the creative processes that produced the work of art. Reflecting this philosophy was the artist’s use of the silkscreen, a process that allowed multiple identical images to be produced by anyone: Warhol liked to have his friends create prints using his silkscreens.
Self-portrait with camouflage
Most of Warhol’s creative work at this time took place in his studio, which he called “the Factory”. This work, done between 1962 and 1964, ranged from portraits of friends and celebrities to car crashes to electric chairs to consumer products. Perhaps the most famous of his Factory work — consumer product images of Campbell’s Soup, Brillo boxes, green stamps, and Coca-Cola — distinctly point to Warhol’s fascination with America’s growing identification with brand-name labels.
In 1962 Warhol had his first show in the Stable Gallery. It was a huge success, widely reported in the press and fully sold out. His paintings, manufactured in the Factory, were bought almost as soon as they were shown. People stood in lines at exhibit openings to look at his work. A trendsetter, Warhol and his work were definitely a hot commodity. But in 1965, Warhol declared Pop art “dead” and decided to retire from painting; his last gallery exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1966 consisted of Cow Wallpaper and Silver Clouds.
From 1966 onward, Andy Warhol concentrated on making films, initially intent on studying the lives of the people surrounding him. The first films for which he gained recognition were shot between 1963 and 1964, a total of eight hours, with the titles of Sleep, Kiss, Haircut, Eat, Blow Job, and Empire. Awarded the Independent Film Award by Film Culture, this series of films translated Warhol’s philosophy on painting to the screen: the focus was not on the finished product (indeed, most of these films could never be mass-marketed), but on the creative processes that went into the work. Just as Warhol emphasized the fact that others could use his silkscreens and create paintings, so his films underscore the truth that anybody could take subjects and film them. Not only could the subjects be ordinary people, but Warhol also made this often-quoted prediction: “In the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Those made famous in Warhol’s pictures included Baby Jane Holzer, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Ingrid Superstar, Ultra Violet, and Viva.
Warhol began working with a rock band called The Velvet Underground in 1965, introducing them to the chanteuse Nico; to the music of the band he orchestrated an interactive show consisting of images and lights and called it The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The mixed media showcase created an international sensation when it opened at the DOM nightclub in New York City. It was an onslaught on the senses, and it described in music and art the feeling of young America.
Much has been speculated about Andy Warhol’s sex life. He featured both men and women in his artistic endeavors, and his entourage was a mingling of the two sexes. Most people tend to think Warhol was gay, and he did have boyfriends. However, it is a mystery as to whether or not he actually was intimate with these men; Warhol’s attitude was more asexual than homosexual.
On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas, the mentally unstable founding member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), shot Andy Warhol two times in the stomach; she had mistaken him for a kind of god, telling police that “he had too much control over my life.” Warhol spent two months in the hospital recovering from the wounds. This shooting was the inspiration for the 1996 film entitled I Shot Andy Warhol.
In 1968, Warhol tackled the next level in the artistic medium and wrote a novel called a. a demonstrated the philosophy Warhol had expressed previously on canvas and reel — it did not take an accomplished author to write a paper. In order to prove his idea, Warhol recorded twenty-four hours of conversation that occurred within the Factory and entitled it a. In 1969, he founded the magazine inter/View, and in 1975 he published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. Warhol died in February of 1987 from gall bladder surgery complications.