Artist of the Month

September 2020

ANDY WARHOL

(1928-1987)

Selection of Andy Warhol prints

"You own a ‘Warhol’ not an artwork with a title". This comment about Andy Warhol’s art captures the powerful influence of one of the most celebrated artists of the last third of the twentieth century.  A leading exponent of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Warhol’s mass-produced art captured the supposed banality of the commercial culture of the United States.

Born in 1928, Warhol redefined what it meant to be an artist as a public figure.

 

An artist works in a studio. Warhol worked in a Factory with others. The artist paints. Warhol made films. Art is the opposite of everyday objects. Warhol painted soup cans and used media photos for his portraits. The artwork is what the artist signs. Warhol would sign anything for a fee and did not personally make many of his famous images.

 

Unravelling these contradictions lie at the heart of understanding Warhol’s work.

 

During his lifetime, Andy Warhol was always associated with the idea of celebrity.  He understood the attraction of global celebrity and its effects on contemporary society long before Twitter and Instagram were launched. He was fascinated by starlets and famous actresses whom he would often immortalize in his artworks.

 

Although Warhol’s early work focused on post-war America’s love affair with consumerism, as illustrated by his obsession with Campbell’s soup tins and Coca-Cola bottles.

 

Warhol’s most highly-priced pieces featured female celebrities. By relying on his signature screen-printing techniques to scribble over the iconic features of famous female faces, Warhol was responsible for making these celebrities even more popular even in death.

 

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If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, and there I am,’ the artist said in 1967.

 

Six Self-Portraits (1986) click on the portraits above — completed just months before his sudden death — engages with the humanity beneath his carefully crafted façade.

 

In Six Self-Portraits, Warhol assembles six variations of his iconic 1986 ‘fright wig’ self-portrait, his disembodied face emerging from darkness in a series of intimate 22 x 22-inch canvases. His sculpted, mask-like face, bathed in dramatic contrast, resembles a skull. Placing himself alongside the great masters of the genre, from Dürer and Rembrandt to Picasso and Bacon, Warhol charges his self-image with a poignant sense of his own mortality.

 

Keenly aware of the ‘self’ in the world and in art as an artificial construct, Warhol frequently represented himself in his art in ways both revelatory and evasive. In his first self-portraits, from 1963, Warhol is pictured in a raincoat and dark glasses — the stereotypical image of disguise. In his 1966-67 self-portraits, facial features dissolve into patterns of layered colour — this is the self-portrait as a disappearing act. By the late 1980s, Warhol’s self-image was virtually a complete fabrication.

Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych is one of many paintings and prints that he produced of Marylyn Monroe just after she died in 1962, highlighting the public’s obsession with celebrity. It is made of two silver canvases on which the artist silkscreened a photograph of Marilyn Monroe fifty times. At first glance, the work—which explicitly references a form of Christian painting in its title—invites us to worship the legendary icon, whose image Warhol plucked from popular culture and immortalized as art.  

 

But as in all of Warhol's early paintings, this image is a carefully crafted critique of modern art and contemporary life. Warhol’s works reveal that he was influenced not only by pop culture but also by art history—and especially by the art that was then popular in New York. For example, in this painting, we can identify the hallmarks of Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

 

The size of Marilyn Diptych (more than six feet by nine feet) demands our attention and announces the importance of the subject matter. Furthermore, the seemingly careless handling of the paint and its “all-over composition”—the even distribution of form and colour across the entire canvas, such that the viewer’s eyes wander without focusing on one spot—are each hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism, as exemplified by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. Yet Warhol references these painters only to undermine the supposed expressiveness of their gestures. Like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose work he admired, he uses photographic imagery, the silkscreen process,32 and repetition to make art that is about society.

 

Warhol takes as the subject of his painting an impersonal image. Though he was an award-winning illustrator, instead of making his drawing of Monroe, he appropriated an image that already existed. The image is not some other artist’s drawing, but a photograph made for mass reproduction. We know the image is a photo, not only because of its verisimilitude but also because of the heightened contrast between the lit and shadowed areas of her face, which are associated with a photographer’s flashgun. 

 

Monroe looks at us seductively from under heavy-lidded eyes and with parted lips; but her expression is also a bit inscrutable, and the repetition remakes her face into an eerie, inanimate mask. Warhol’s use of the silkscreen technique further “flattens” the star’s face. By screening broad planes of unmodulated colour, the artist removes the gradual shading that creates a sense of three-dimensional volume and suspends the actress in an abstract void. Through these choices, Warhol transforms the literal flatness of the paper-thin publicity photo into an emotional “flatness,” and the actress into a kind of automaton. In this way, the painting reflects that “Marilyn Monroe,” was a manufactured star with a made-up name, merely a one-dimensional (sex) symbol.

 

Warhol’s silkscreened repetitions complicate his identity as the artist. The silkscreen process allowed Warhol and his assistants in the Factory to reproduce the same image over and over again, using multiple colours. Once the screens are manufactured and the colours are chosen, the artist simply spreads inks evenly over the screens. Though there are differences from one face to the next, these appear to be the accidental by-products of a quasi-mechanical process, rather than the product of the artist's judgment. 

Warhol's world was that of a highly commercial artist. He turned screen printing into saleable paintings, managed a rock group the Velvet Underground, and pioneered independent cinema with his 16m films. His art reflects his personal life even though it was highly impersonal.

 

Some critics have asked if his work is art?

It could be part of an advertising department. But by displaying his work in an art gallery it becomes more than advertising through its setting alongside other art. 

 

Warhol was innovative in his approach to re-shaping everyday objects. He took many Duchampian ideas to a new level.

 

His work is multimedia and challenged the art establishment but in turn, Warhol became part of it. 

Campbell's Soup Cans, Andy Warhol,  mid 1960s

Self Portrait, Andy Warhol, 1963

Dollar Signs, Andy Warhol, 1982