Andy Warhol grew up in a slum ghetto, and his parents were poor Slovakian immigrants during the Great Depression of the ‘30s in Pittsburgh. Food was often scarce, and Andy’s mum would sometimes make soup out of water and ketchup. A tin of Campbell’s tomato soup was a real treat.
During those grey Depression years, these formed the rich imagery of his childhood. It seems to me that Andy’s two childhood passions – the Catholic religion and the movie stars in his magazines, later fused in with his complex feelings about celebrities.
In 1949, Andy moved to New York, aged 21, with only a small suitcase and some samples of his work. He dreamt of becoming a famous artist, but in the meantime, just hoping to make a living as a commercial illustrator.
He was desperate to join this glamorous world. It was tantalizingly close, but still out of reach. He went knocking on doors and finally found his job in Glamour magazine. In there, Tina Frederick commissioned him to draw shoes for her magazine.
Andy’s persistence began to pay off when Glamour magazine asked him to illustrate a feature aptly called Success is A Job in New York. They liked his whimsical drawing, with their quirky, charming figures.
By the mid-1950s, Andy’s career in commercial illustration was taking off. He made more than 100,000 a year, which was big money in the ‘50s. But he still dreamt of being a real artist. The cutting-edge artists of the 1950s were people like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who flung paint across the whole canvas, which looks kind of messy. It, by their saying, demonstrated the inner turmoil of a human being and often involved some serious issues like nationalism. However, the public often found it mysterious, and hard to understand, and Warhol didn’t appreciate this Abstract Expressionism at all.
In his later career, Warhol consciously made little distinction between art and commerce, but when he was given his first one-man gallery shows in the early 1950s, he exhibited drawings based on the work of Truman Capote, a series of drawn figures and dancers. In this period, Warhol’s work was delicate yet fey, boarding on the controversy. And it didn’t make any impression in the serious world of art, which was much taken by Abstract Expressionism.
This poor kid who had grown up during the Great Depression was obsessed with the ‘50s consumer revolution. The glossy commercials for shiny cars, the new supermarket crammed with undreamt-of varieties of food. He loved this mass-produced world of plenty. With his commercial background, Andy thought he could create art that reflected it.
It might not seem like much, but deciding to depict a commercial object on canvas and deciding to present it in this very clean, graphic, mechanical mode was a huge deal in the art world at the time, and this turned Andy into the champion of a new movement called Pop art.
And with that thought, in 1960, he painted his first Pop Painting, using images of Superman, Batman, and Coca-Cola bottles. However, he didn’t break the ground.
It was the 32 cans of Campbell’s tomato soup that let the world know the name of Warhol and made a bold move in America’s modern art history. Most people thought they were a joke and the expressionists were outrageous to even think about the ordinary cans that can be put on the wall of America’s great art museum. But some mark Andy’s coming–of–age as a pop painter. The bright colors, and the crisp, mechanical technique, were all things Andy would play with again and again.
Some people claim that they can see the profound democracy in Warhol’s work. It takes ordinary, everyday life as its inspiration and celebrates consumerism and the mass media. It is a subversion to the serious, high art represented by Abstract expressionism in the 1960s in America. The oscillation between great themes like nationalism and the banal daily object like bottles, the confrontation between seriousness and playful depiction, and the opposition between the high and the low, are what had always drawn people to Warhol’s work. It challenged the view of traditional art after WWII and gave art to its ordinary form which can be related to every American. And with that, Andy Warhol truly became the king of pop art.
Warhol’s impoverished, immigrant background sort of made him assert wealth and success. However, it seemed impossible for a poor-educated young man to participate in any of his dreams. Consumption seemed to be one obvious solution, since whether rich or poor, all people can afford a bottle of Coca-Cola. In his view, It's a representation of democracy. It may also thank the boosting economy that made consumption so prevail. It seems that, in this case, the subject matter chose him more than the other way around. It makes sense why there are so many objects like soup cans, Coke bottles, and Green Stamps in his works that represent the American society of his time. And he used his way to make this theme lightly, perhaps even frivolously.
However, his work had also been questioned for his originality since he’s been famous was copying common items. To reinforce his rejection of originality in his art, Andy started calling his studio The Factory, an ironic blow to those who stood against him. He removed himself almost completely from the hands-on creation of his work, beginning to use an industrial process he had discovered in the early 1960s called silkscreen printing.
It was perfect for making mass-produced art about a mass-produced world. The technique allows the artist to build up multiple layers of color, transforming the original photograph into something new, and showing us how the artist sees the subject.
In August 1962, movie star Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose, and Andy immediately decided to make a series of portraits of her with the exciting new silkscreen technique.
At first glance, Marilyn looks incredibly beautiful, even precious, like one of the religious icons that Andy saw in church as a boy. “But something isn’t right. The silkscreen allowed him to offset the layers of paint, so the edges smudge and blur, creating an eerie, haunting quality. The colorful mask covers the colorless photograph, echoing Marilyn’s glittering media-created image that hid the profound sadness beneath. The colors of her eyelids and lips look like make-up applied by a child.” commented BBC critics. As some people claimed, Marilyn’s face is distorted, just as the media distorted her image. Maybe the sadness that echoes from this image is what Warhol felt about the demise of the great actress and the disappointment of mass media.
Warhol’s obsession with celebrity may also stem from his childhood experience and his view of mass production. For him portraying celebrities may be the same as portraying an atomic bomb.
The mass media producing news 7/24 constantly bombing people is no different than the movie producers selling their stars like the manufactured tin of Campbell’s tomato soup he used to carve.
In any case, people can find that not all of Warhol’s subject matter is mundane. In his Death and Disaster series, he used images of race riots, car crashes, the electric chair, and even the John F. Kennedy assassination. The imageries give people a sense of depression and seriousness, which I find a little bit sarcastic since it’s the unwillingness to follow the path of serious abstract fine art that made him go the other way, becoming a pop artist.
Anyhow, Andy was surely really ahead of his time in replicating our image to change how people see us and stuff. Even now, people are still influenced by Warhol’s art. Facebook is an obvious example. Back in the 50s, people thought the idea of brand-like replication of personal portrayal was kind of nauseous and artificial. But now, everybody is putting pictures of themselves online and expressing themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and many other platforms. Isn’t the filters in our smartphones look like the works of Warhol? A way to Warholize ourselves? Therefore, inevitably, whether or not, some people think they are creating a brand that is analogous to Andy’s endlessly replicated imagery.
*** All images are courtesy of the Artist
Written by Xihao Wu
JM Art Management