A 26-letter guide to the awkward and unlikely artist who wrote himself into the history books with his work in Pop Art, experimental film and the notorious social circle he cultivated
The odds were stacked against Andy Warhola from the beginning. No one could have expected this socially awkward, shy young man – who as a child suffered from an illness that left him permanently self-conscious – to hit such iconoclastic heights as one of the world’s most recognisable artists.
Ditching the ‘a’ from his surname, in 1949 Warhol moved from Pennsylvania to New York where Abstract Expressionism was hot property, and talents such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning dominated the art scene. As Pop Art emerged in the 60s and 70s as an antidote to a postwar climate, Warhol found himself fascinated. But his fame was far from immediate, and by the end of 1961, he was the only member of the Pop Art movement to not have his work shown publicly. Rejection continued to shadow him, and, although landing his first one-man show, Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote, at New York’s Hugo Gallery in 1952, he failed to attract a single buyer.
His luck would finally change when a friend suggested that a disheartened Andy paint something “recognisable”, like cans of soup. As his professional success grew, his influence spread across the New York art crowd, spurred on by his friendships with celebrities and art figures alike, including gallerist Irving Blum, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and socialite Edie Sedgwick. By the end of his life in 1987, he could claim to be an artist; filmmaker; drag queen; magazine publisher; and even cookbook author.
With both a personality and oeuvre that resist categorisation, in honour of his show at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, below we attempt to put all that into a 26-letter guide to the “Pope of Pop”.
A IS FOR ADVERTISING
“A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it,” is what Warhol wrote in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
His obsession with commercialism, product and celebrity meant Warhol spent much of his career entangled in commercial art. After working as a commercial illustrator very early in his professional life, he would go on to sell his work to magazines, Mercedes-Benz, and even appeared in a Diet Coke advert. This work enraged many in the art world who considered art to be tainted if it became commercialised. Rather than bowing to pressure to conform, Warhol thrived on flippancy and carved out a reputation for playing off commercialism in his now-iconic silkscreen prints of celebrities famous figures, life-like Brillo box sculptures and, unsurprisingly, coke bottles.
B IS FOR (MUMMY’S) BOY
Warhol formed a close bond with his mother, owed in part to his childhood illness that confined him to his home. When Andy Moved to New York from Pennsylvania, Julia Warhola would follow him just a few years later. The pair ended up living together for a further twenty years in his NYC apartment where Julia assisted him throughout his career. More than just a supportive parent, she signed some of his paintings for him and even produced her own artwork under the pseudonym “Andy Warhol’s Mother”. With a knack for art predating Andy’s own – namely drawing and embroidery – Julia is said to have been the single most influential person in his life.
Another hugely influential person on Warhol was Basquiat – with whom he enjoyed a very close friendship with. Warhol’s death is said to be one of the main events that led to Jean-Michel’s down-spiral into an eventual drug overdose.
C IS FOR CANO
While studying Commercial Art at Carnegie Mellon University, Warhol edited the college newspaper, Cano. It was here that he began to hone what would become his signature style of illustration, achieved with the ‘blotted line technique’. By using this, Warhol was able to create basic prints by pressing a blank sheet of paper over his illustrations, transferring the ink from page to page. The speed of reproduction appealed both to the artist and the art directors he sold his work to while allowing him to increase the number of clients he worked with once he arrived in New York to begin his commercial career. A few years back, drawings from his time there were discovered and are among some of his earliest known published works.
D IS FOR DOLLAR SIGNS
Few artists were so brazen about their relationship to money as Warhol. Interestingly, while the work that came out of The Factory rarely made Warhol any money, after his shooting (See ‘N’ for Near Death Experience), the value of his art skyrocketed. Criticised and acclaimed in equal measure for his commercial art (refer back to D for ‘Dollar Signs’, Warhol was always transparent about money as his driving force. In 1968 he went as far as taking out an advert in US tabloid The Village Voice, stating “I will endorse with my name any of the following; clothing AC-DC, cigarettes small, tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!! Love and kisses ANDY WARHOL, EL 5-9941.” In doing so, Warhol played with and reinforced his image as a commercial artist, determined to shore up a personal brand; something he built on continuously in his work, and exhibited knowingly in the aloof style he used in interviews, making claims such as, “Making money is art.”
E IS FOR EDIE SEDGWICK
After meeting at a party, a mutual obsession grew between wayward socialite Edie Sedgwick and Warhol. Sedgwick, known for her rebellious attitude, became one of The Factory’s most famous “Superstars”, and went as far as dying her hair the same hue of silver as Warhol’s and introducing him to her father. Immortalised by The Velvet Underground’s track, “Femme Fatale”, Warhol also cast her in several of his films, including Poor Little Rich Girl. It was an ominous title that eventually see life imitating art when a life-long battle with mental health and substance abuse tragically culminated in a barbiturates overdose at the age of 28. Although the pair were only friends for a short time, he was referring to her when he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that “One person in the 60s fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known.”
F IS FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME
Andy Warhol’s obsession with fame was no secret. During his life he was known for his fixations towards stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Jackie Kennedy and Truman Capote, to name just a few. These infatuations proved fertile ground for his work, and he would go on to immortalise most of them, notably Monroe and Kennedy. Dubbed an anti-elitist, Warhol is credited with coining the idea of “Fifteen Minutes of Fame”; first using the phrase in a programme booklet for his exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1968 and going on to have an MTV talk show, “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes” from 1985-1987 – a memorable episode of which featured Debbie Harry introducing an interview with Courtney Love stood in a rubbish dump.
G IS FOR GHOST PISSER
Among the most unusual – and amusing – artwork Warhol produced were the so-called “Oxidations”. Prepping canvases with copper paint, Warhol invited friends and acquaintances to urinate on them, oxidising the paint to produce “piss paintings” that were, like his inkblot work, used to confront what may be considered art. It was this method that Warhol used for his first portrait of friend and collaborator Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982, for which he silkscreened a portrait of Basquiat over one of the specially prepared canvases.
H IS FOR HEDONIST HANGOUT
In January 1964, at 231 East 47th Street, New York, Warhol took up residence at the studio he dubbed “The Factory”. Although it would swap locations over the years, “The Factory” remained a place where Warhol made art, entertained friends, threw drug-and sex-fuelled parties, produced many of his films and turned visitors into his “Superstars”. Reflecting on the studio in an interview with The Guardian, musician John Cale attested, “it wasn't called The Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new.” Notoriously, Warhol called on photographer Billy Lynch, better known as Billy Name, to decorate its entirety in silver: the silver of Old Hollywood’s glamorous silver screen icons (‘Hollywood’ being an initial suggestion for the studio’s name), and a colour which he believed signified the future. An artistic and social hub for people from all walks of life, Warhol claimed in a 1967 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, “I don't really feel all these people with me every day at the Factory are just hanging around me, I'm more hanging around them.”
I IS FOR INTERVIEW MAGAZINE
In 1969, Warhol and John Wicock founded Interview – originally styled as “INTER/view” before it switched to the handwritten logo that popular rumour claims was the work of Warhol himself. Frequently dubbed, "The Crystal Ball of Pop, the magazine began life among the artist’s inner circle at The Factory, before growing into the worldwide publication we know today. Famously, interviews tended to run un-edited in their entirety, in typical Warhol style. However, although the artist remains inextricably linked to the history of the magazine, he wasn’t as hands-on as you might think. His name on the masthead was listed second, under his associate Paul Morrissey, and as Interview designer Steven Heller put it, “As far as I could tell, Warhol rarely got his hands dirty with this rag. He ruled Interview many blocks from where I was…I was never even told that he (or Morrissey) passed my redesign before it went to press. I still wonder whether they even read the publication.”
J IS FOR A JACK OF ALL TRADES
Warhol’s influence transcended art and segued into film and music. In 1965, at a screening of Vinyl – Warhol’s black-and-white experimental film – he met filmmaker Paul Morrissey, who introduced him to the The Velvet Underground at one of their gigs. Encouraged by Morrissey, Warhol managed the band from 1965-1967, moving them into The Factory. Combining his punk influence with his artistic interests, he titillated and transgressed with the cover art he produced for the band’s 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico album, which featured a sticker reading “peel slowly and see” next to a vinyl banana which, when peeled, revealed a pink version of the fruit underneath.
KNIVES, ELECTRIC CHAIRS, AND GUNS
Because of his childhood illness (see V for ‘Vanity’), Warhol had regular premonitions about death, was a hypochondriac, and was convinced he would die violently. A nightmare that would almost prove true when radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968 (see N for ‘Near-Death Experience’).
The most expensive of his paintings, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” was a manifestation of Warhol’s increasing desensitisation to violence, and the blank strip on the right-hand side is said to suggest an unconsciousness before death. In similarly themed work, “Knives”, “Electric Chair” and “Gun” – depicting exactly that – the morbid theme was blatant, yet it can also be detected in some of his most famous portraits. Writing in his book POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol explained, “when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face – the first Marilyns.” In the weeks following the assassination of JFK, he is said to have stockpiled images of a mourning Jackie Kennedy. His artwork, “Nine Jackies”, was created from a close-cropped photo taken moments before her husband was shot.
L IS FOR LINE DRAWINGS
Warhol often claimed to be terrible at drawing despite his obvious skill. It’s a statement which fit the famously contrary and deliberately aloof personality he adopted in interviews. Proof of his ability was brought to light in 2012 when London-based Warhol specialist and gallery owner, Daniel Blau, put hundreds of the artist’s drawings on display at Frieze London. The collection of line drawings, which had been hidden from sight for decades at the Andy Warhol Foundation, showed Warhol’s versatility, given the stark contrast to the style of his screen prints we have come to associate with the “Pope of Pop”. His drawing is now debatably some of his most skilled work.
M IS FOR MOST-WANTED MEN
Not averse to controversy, for the 1964 World Fair Warhol invoked the rage of politicians with a publicly commissioned artwork. The 20-foot mural he produced, entitled “The Thirteen Most Wanted”, featured criminal mugshots from the NYPD’s files, and popular rumour has it that officials weren’t happy with it. In order to avoid controversy, Warhol was prompted to have the work covered over with Factory-esque silver paint.
N IS FOR NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE
On 3 June 1968 Valerie Solanas, a volatile, radical feminist and SCUM Manifesto editor – who had appeared in several of Warhol’s films – waited for the artist at The Factory for several hours. She had sent him a manuscript that Warhol promised to turn into a film, but never did and, fuelled in part by her own mental instability, she had grown increasingly paranoid that Warhol was trying to steal her idea. On that day, she hid a gun in her coat and headed to her publisher’s office. After realising he was away, she changed tack and went to The Factory, where she was met by Paul Morrissey. He lied and told Solanas that Warhol wasn’t coming so she would leave, which she ignored. When Warhol eventually showed up, Solanas followed him into the building before shooting him and two others. At one point, Warhol was declared clinically dead and was only saved by a five-hour operation. The experience deeply affected Warhol, he assessed in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, "Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life… Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television…. The channels switch, but it's all television.”
O IF FOR ON THE RISE
At The Factory, Warhol set about nurturing the people who hung out there, casting them in his films and promoting them to fame. This clique of “Superstars” included, most famously, Edie Sedgwick, as well as Joe Dallessandro – the star of Lonesome Cowboys and the model in Warhol’s infamous crotch shot for The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album cover –, Candy Darling, the transgender actress who became a Velvet Underground muse and appeared in Flesh and Women In Revolt; along with Nico, of Velvet Underground fame, Factory archivist Billy Name, actor Ondine, and cult actress Mary Woronov. The way that Warhol managed to catapult these people to celebrity status fed into his idea of everyone having their fifteen minute (See F), and he revelled in their success, making the Superstars the focus of his first commercially successful film, Chelsea Girls.
P IS FOR “POPE OF POP”
As he rapidly became the most recognised figure in the Pop Art movement, Warhol was described by art critic Arthur Danto in his 1989 essay Art as “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced”. In 1962, MoMA hosted a symposium of Pop Art, raising Warhol’s profile even higher while also triggering criticism of him and other pop artists, who were accused of “capitulating” to commercialism. These labels were only fuelled more by Warhol’s refusal to talk about himself in interviews or elucidate any motivation for, or meaning behind, his work. Using a fascination for mass consumerism, personal ties to the advertising industry, his obsession with celebrity and a fixation with seriality and what repetition could symbolise, his role in the Pop movement earned him the nicknames “High Priest of Pop” and the “Pope of Pop”.
Q IS FOR (DRAG) QUEENS
Warhol had his own drag persona, Drella, who he immortalised in a series of Polaroid self-portraits. “Drella” was bestowed upon him by his actor friend Ondine – star of Warhol’s films Chelsea Girls and Vinyl – as a portmanteau of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Cinderella’ to reflect Warhol’s dualistic personality: both effeminate and obsessed with his own mortality. Following Warhol’s death, Lou Reed, of Velvet Underground fame, named one of his band’s albums Songs For Drella in tribute to his late friend.
R IS FOR RELIGION
Warhol was raised in a devout Catholic family and as an adult his strong faith continued, compelling him to volunteer at New York homeless shelters. Throughout his time spent incapacitated by illness as a child, he and his mum attended Church several times a week. The local church he worshipped at with his mother contained Byzantine religious portraits that filled the walls, something which commentators have since suggested may have influenced the repetitive style of the silkscreen portrait prints he is so famous for.
S IS FOR SOUP CANS
Like much of his work, the idea for the screen-prints of Campbell’s soup cans came from one of the eclectic minds that Warhol surrounded himself. At dinner one night, Warhol’s friend, art expert and gallery owner, Muriel Latow, suggested he paint soup cans – “something that everybody recognises” – and he decided to run with it. His 32 prints – one for each flavour – of flatly-painted soup cans were devoid of any sign of the brush strokes or drips that were a key component of Abstract Expressionism at the time, prompting the question of whether a work can be considered a painting if you can’t see any evidence of a brush? Warhol’s interpretations of soup cans were among his very earliest silkscreen prints, demarcating both a new style of artistic expression for him personally, and a revolutionary break with the established art school of the day.
T IS FOR TIME
Obsessed with capturing absolutely everything, Warhol thought nothing of making audiences sit through six-hour-long films. His debut film in 1963, Sleep, which showed a man sleeping for six hours, was typical of this desire to show moments slipping by, ceasing to exist in real time. Warhol’s fascination with time permeated all aspects of his life, with him creating over 400 three-minute films, or ‘living portraits’ of Factory goers sat motionless and alone in front of his camera, and amassing a collection of more than 600 cardboard boxes that he added to daily, filling them with ephemera that included palettes given to him by Salvador Dalí.
U IS FOR UNCERTAINTY
Despite becoming perhaps the most recognisable name in art on the planet, Warhol’s rise was plagued by rejection and personal setbacks. Awkward as a child, withdrawn and unsociable, as an adult Warhol struggled with his personal relationships, disliked physical contact and was often deemed a voyeur. Unsurprisingly, then, when he arrived in New York, he was shunned by the art scene. After his first New York exhibition, “Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writing of Truman Capote”, none of the pieces sold, when his work went on display at an ice cream parlour called Serendipity 3 – the only place that would show him – it didn’t attract a single customer, and he was deemed “too swish” by prominent artists Jasper John and Robert Rauschenberg, who refused to welcome him. It’s said to have been around this period of rejection that Warhol began cultivating his apathetic public persona, and marked the point when his work began to morph into his recognisable Pop style. Despite the apathy he endured, he refused to compromise. His reputation grew, his Pop Art shook the art world, and from his uncertain beginnings grew his inimitable legacy.
V IS FOR VANITY
Warhol had a life-long troublesome relationship with his own reflection – exacerbated by the damaging effects of Sydenham’s Chorea that he suffered as a child, which left his skin permanently blotchy and sensitive to the touch. He considered himself unattractive and remained permanently preoccupied with how he looked – at the age of 29, he went as far as having plastic surgery on his nose, which did nothing to extinguish his self-consciousness. Preferring to adopt grey or white hair in his 20s in order to attract comments at how young his face looked, he amassed a collection of more than 40 wigs.
W IS FOR “WIFE”
Though he never actually married and had romantic relationships exclusively with men, Warhol did have a wife, of sorts. After being audited by the IRS, he carried a tape recorder with him wherever he went, so he could keep track of his spending. Over time this escalated into him recording conversations he had, using the recorder so frequently that he took to referring to it was his “wife”.
X IS FOR X-RATED MOVIES
Over his life, Warhol made nearly 600 films and nearly 2500 videos – most notable are some of his raunchier flicks. In 1973 Warhol teamed up with Paul Morrissey to produce two sordid re-interpretations of Frankenstein and Dracula, both handed X-ratings for containing explicit sex and violent scenes. The violence of Frankenstein in particular and the metaphor of mutilation is said to have expressed Warhol’s own relationship with his body as a result of the gunshot wounds he suffered at the hands of Valerie Solanas.
Y IS FOR YOKO ONO
Among the famous faces who frequented The Factory was Yoko Ono, who Warhol met through the NY art scene, and was responsible for a chance encounter between him and Steve Jobs. In his diary, published posthumously, Warhol wrote about a visit to Ono and Lennon’s house, “There was a kid there setting up the Apple computer that Sean (Lennon) had gotten as a present, the Macintosh model. I said that once some man had been calling me a lot wanting to give me one, but that I’d never called him back or something, and then the kid looked up and said, ‘Yeah, that was me. I’m Steve Jobs.’ And he looked so young, like a college guy… Then he gave me a lesson on drawing with it.” Warhol and Ono remained friends for many years, with her giving a reading at his funeral.
Z IS FOR ZEITGEIST
The impact Warhol had on revolutionising the art world, changing perceptions about fame to be something democratic rather than only achievable by a select few. At the very least, Warhol highlighted, if not ignited, a cultural fascination with reality TV and celebrity and left a legacy that was far-reaching and forceful. He directly influenced artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring. Further afield, David Bowie not only named a track on his Hunky Dory album after him but also played Warhol in the 1996 film Basquiat. Proof of the longevity of his influence, if needed, and the sheer volume of work he produced that lives on beyond him is the nine days it took Sotheby’s to auction his possessions in their entirety after he died.
The exhibition ARTIST ROOMS: Andy Warhol runs from 19th November 2016 – 16th April 2017 at The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. A comprehensive four-hour-long documentary is available on YouTube in two parts, here