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Female figure seated
Andy Warhol, “Untitled (Female Figure Seated)”, Study for Ladies' Alphabet © Andy Warhol, Circa 1953-1954, Ink on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm)Provenance: The Estate of Andy Warhol (stamped), Authenticated by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (stamp and archive number on verso)

This Warhol exhibition reveals his early fascination with fame and camp

The artist’s rarely-seen drawings from the mid-1950s, which would foreshadow his most notable works of pop art, are making their public debut

As one of the most conspicuous artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s work and his distinctive aesthetic have made him one of the most recognisable figures in modern history. He casts such a long shadow across the landscape of popular culture that he’s often reduced to a caricature of himself (which you can’t help but imagine he’d approve of). So it’s even more intriguing than ever to glimpse an earlier incarnation of the iconic artist before he came to inhabit his most celebrated creation: Andy Warhol.

An exhibition at Indianapolis’ Long-Sharp Gallery called Andy Warhol: A Survey of Portrait and Figurative Drawings from the Mid-1950s promises an insight into Warhol’s earlier work before he became the fully-fledged “Pope of Pop Art” that he’d be remembered as. While so much of his early, non-commercial work has been lost or destroyed, the drawings on display here (both in the psychical gallery and as a virtual tour) foreshadow the creation of his famous persona and his most notable works of pop art, anticipating some of the important recurring themes that would come to occupy him for the rest of his life. 

Initially moving to New York in 1949, Warhol began his career working in advertising. This early experience as a commercial artist would inform his future era-defining artworks, such as his famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962) – an image that replicates and ironises the conventions of advertisements, recontextualising mass-produced objects and everyday branding as the subjects of fine art. A work from 1954 (below) draws on advertising rhetoric of the day for its title, “Brandon de Wilde smokes Camels because they are so mild”.

Long before immortalising the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley in his most notable screenprints, Warhol was captivated with fame. His illustrations from this early period not only speak of his interest in celebrity but also his lifelong practice of appropriating popular (or “lowbrow”) culture into new artistic contexts alongside classical, “high” art references. These early drawings demonstrate that a fascination with fame that predates his pop art days. He caricatures urbane women of fashion, and minor character actors of the day, alongside classical nudes and his own idiosyncratic re-imagining of 16th century Italian portraits. 

Described by Richard Hell as “transcendentally camp”, this custom of placing tabloid, mass-market artefacts on the same plane as classical art is an essential part of the camp humour and sensibility that would come to embody so much of his work, functioning in the same way as the famous Warholisms that would also become an important part of his legacy. Quotes such as “I never think that people die. They just go to department stores” and “You always liked disasters. You liked Grease II” are camp in that they dismiss critically serious subjects with a blithe, pithy brush-off whilst treating lightweight matters with life-or-death urgency.  

Andy Warhol in the 1950s may be an embryonic version of what he would ultimately become, but the drawings on display in this exhibition are not just the rudimentary sketches of a  promising artist – they are the highly original, beautiful, fascinating, and humorous drawings of an erudite, skilled artist. 

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the early Warhol drawings on display. 

Andy Warhol: A Survey of Portrait and Figurative Drawings from the Mid-1950s is at the Long-Sharp Gallery in Indianapolis until September 23 2021 or you can take a virtual tour of the exhibition here