Andy Warhol (August 6, 1928 – February 22, 1987) was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art. After a successful career as a commercial illustrator, Warhol became a renowned and sometimes controversial artist. His works explore the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertisement. He worked in a range of media, including painting, printmaking, sculpture, film, and music. He founded Interview Magazine and was the author of numerous books, including The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Popism: The Warhol Sixties. Andy Warhol is also notable as a gay man who lived openly as such before the gay liberation movement. His studio, The Factory, was a famous gathering place that brought together distinguished intellectuals, drag queens, playwrights, Bohemian street people, Hollywood celebrities, and wealthy patrons.
Warhol has been the subject of numerous retrospective exhibitions, books, and feature and documentary films. He coined the widely used expression “15 minutes of fame”. In his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, The Andy Warhol Museum celebrates his life and work.
The highest price ever paid for a Warhol painting is US$100 million for a 1963 canvas titled Eight Elvises. The private transaction was reported in a 2009 article in The Economist, which described Warhol as the “bellwether of the art market”. $100 million is a benchmark price that only Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-August Renoir, Gustav Klimt and Willem de Kooning have achieved.
The youngest child of three, Andy was born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928 in the working-class neighborhood of Oakland, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Stricken at an early age with a rare neurological disorder, the young Andy Warhol found solace and escape in the form of popular celebrity magazines and DC comic books, imagery he would return to years later. Predating the multiple silver wigs and deadpan demeanor of later years, Andy experimented with inventing personae during his college years. He signed greeting cards “André”, and ultimately dropped the “a” from his last name, shortly after moving to New York and following his graduation with a degree in Pictorial Design from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949.
Work came quickly to Warhol in New York, a city he made his home and studio for the rest of his life. Within a year of arriving, Warhol garnered top assignments as a commercial artist for a variety of clients including Columbia Records, Glamour magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, NBC, Tiffany & Co., Vogue, and others. He also designed fetching window displays for Bonwit Teller and I. Miller department stores. After establishing himself as an acclaimed graphic artist, Warhol turned to painting and drawing in the 1950s, and in 1952 he had his first solo exhibition at the Hugo Gallery, with Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote. As he matured, his paintings incorporated photo-based techniques he developed as a commercial illustrator. The Museum of Modern Art (among others) took notice, and in 1956 the institution included his work in his first group show.
The turbulent 1960s ignited an impressive and wildly prolific time in Warhol’s life. It is this period, extending into the early 1970s, which saw the production of many of Warhol’s most iconic works. Building on the emerging movement of Pop Art, wherein artists used everyday consumer objects as subjects, Warhol started painting readily found, mass-produced objects, drawing on his extensive advertising background. When asked about the impulse to paint Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol replied, “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and that was it”. The humble soup cans would soon take their place among the Marilyn Monroes, Dollar Signs, Disasters, and Coca Cola Bottles as essential, exemplary works of contemporary art.
Operating out of a silver-painted, and foil-draped studio nicknamed The Factory, located at 231 East 47th Street, (his second studio space to hold that title), Warhol embraced work in film and video. He made his first films with a newly purchased Bolex camera in 1963 and began experimenting with video as early as 1965. Now considered avant-garde cinema classics, Warhol’s early films include Sleep (1963), Blow Job (1964), Empire (1963), and Kiss (1963-64). With sold out screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and Cannes, the split-screen, pseudo documentary Chelsea Girls (1966) brought new attention to Warhol from the film world. Art critic David Bourdon wrote, “word around town was underground cinema had finally found itsSound of Music in Chelsea Girls.” Warhol would make nearly 600 films and nearly 2500 videos. Among these are the 500, 4-minute films that comprise Warhol’s Screen Tests, which feature unflinching portraits of friends, associates and visitors to the Factory, all deemed by Warhol to be in possession of “star quality”.
Despite a brief self-declared retirement from painting following an exhibition of Flowers in Paris, Warhol continued to make sculptures (including the well known screenprinted boxes with the logos of Brillo and Heinz Ketchup) prints, and films. During this time he also expanded his interests into the realm of performance and music, producing the traveling multi-media spectacle, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with the Velvet Underground and Nico,
In 1968 Warhol suffered a nearly fatal gun-shot wound from aspiring playwright and radical feminist author, Valerie Solanas. The shooting, which occurred in the entrance of the Factory, forever changed Warhol. Some point to the shock of this event as a factor in his further embrace of an increasingly distant persona. The brush with death along with mounting pressure from the Internal Revenue Service (stemming from his critical stance against President Richard Nixon), seem to have prompted Warhol to document his life to an ever more obsessive degree. He would dictate every activity, including noting the most minor expenses, and employ interns and assistants to transcribe the content of what would amount to over 3,400 audio tapes. Portions of these accounts were published posthumously in 1987 as The Warhol Diaries.
The traumatic attempt on his life did not, however, slow down his output or his cunning ability to seamlessly infiltrate the worlds of fashion, music, media, and celebrity. His artistic practice soon intersected with all aspects of popular culture, in some cases long before it would become truly popular. He co-founded Interview Magazine; appeared on television in a memorable episode of The Love Boat; painted an early computer portrait of singer Debbie Harry; designed Grammy-winning record covers for The Rolling Stones; signed with a modeling agency; contributed short films to Saturday Night Live; and produced Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes and Andy Warhol’s TV, his own television programs for MTV and cable access. He also developed a strong business in commissioned portraits, becoming highly sought after for his brilliantly-colored paintings of politicians, entertainers, sports figures, writers, debutantes and heads of state. His paintings, prints, photographs and drawings of this time include the important series, Skulls, Guns,Camouflage, Mao, and The Last Supper.
While in Milan, attending the opening of the exhibition of The Last Supper paintings, Warhol complained of severe pain in his right side. After delaying a hospital visit, he was eventually convinced by his doctors to check into New York Hospital for gall bladder surgery. On February 22, 1987, while in recovery from this routine operation, Andy Warhol died. Following burial in Pittsburgh, thousands of mourners paid their respects at a memorial service held at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The service was attended by numerous associates and admirers including artists Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, and entertainer Liza Minnelli. Readings were contributed by Yoko Ono and Factory collaborator and close friend, Brigid Berlin.
Plans to house The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh were announced in 1989, two years after the establishment of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Through the ongoing efforts of both of these institutions, Andy Warhol remains not only a fascinating cultural icon, but an inspiration to new generations of artists, curators, filmmakers, designers, and cultural innovators the world over.