What is Pop Art without Andy Warhol? The Pittsburgh-born artist defined the movement – conveying his fascination with celebrity culture and advertising through various mediums, his work deified the very same consumerism that it endeavoured to criticise. As his work blurred the lines between image and authenticity, Warhol in turn inaugurated himself as an American icon.
Warhol’s early work as a commercial illustrator consisted of light-hearted, whimsical drawings created by pressing fresh sheets of paper onto wet lines to make printed images. This work paved the way for the mass-produced, repetition-oriented techniques that would continue to determine his artistic style throughout his career.
Four Male Costumed Full Figures, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
In the 1960s, Warhol began illustrating Campbell’s soup packaging, providing a refreshing take on the familiar. However, it was never his intention to make the commonplace uncommon – “I just happen to like ordinary things. When I paint them, I don’t try to make them extraordinary. I just try to paint them ordinary-ordinary”.
Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, Andy Warhol
Early 1960s he incorporated portraiture into his oeuvre with a series of celebrity portraits, amongst whom Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis Presley featured. With photographic silkscreen printing, Warhol was able to reproduce images of the stars who were already exposed to the public, repeating this several times. The most famed of these prints was the Marilyn Monroe 1962, a diptych that featured 25 Marilyns on each of the two canvases, with rows of heads emulating film strips. The juxtaposed colour palettes of the two canvases reflect the two sides of Marilyn – the public: flamboyant and colourful and the private: monochrome and dark.
Marilyn Monroe, 1962, Andy Warhol
Silkscreen printing enabled Warhol to mechanise his production of art, further purging his artworks of any personal touch. In his Death and Disasters series, Warhol appropriated photographs of nuclear explosions, car crashes, and other horrifying scenes. The curiously diminishing effect of repetition is apt in desensitising the public to horrors, thus accentuating the manner in which the media normalises the obscene – the artist reflected, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.”
Red Disaster, 1963, Andy Warhol
Warhol’s 1960s studio – The Factory – was swarmed with studio assistants who enabled Warhol to capitalise on commercial productivity by manufacturing his work. Mass-production was thus mirrored not only in the identical products but in production itself. The Factory later became a hot spot for intellectuals, drag queens and Hollywood celebrities, further cementing Warhol’s pedestal in the spotlight of the American cultural scene.
Warhol’s personality became a work of art in itself. Warhol wrote, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings, and there I am. There’s nothing more.” His disinterested demeanour during interviews and veiled personal life were the cornerstones of the Andy Warhol façade that is ever so pertinent to this day.