As one of the most sensational and unconventional artists to arrive on the scene in the 20th century, Andy Warhol quickly rose to fame, and sometimes infamy, in the world of contemporary art. He is best known as a founder of Pop Art, a movement that linked visual art and popular culture. However, that is only one chapter in Warhol’s wildly successful and ever-evolving career, which encompassed illustration, printmaking, painting, photography and filmmaking.
Andy Warhol was born Andy Warhola on August 6, 1928, into a poor working-class family. His parents, Andrej and Julia Warhola, had emigrated from present-day Slovakia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father worked as a coal miner. For the first few years of his life, Warhol lived with his parents and two older brothers in a two-room apartment in a tenement building before the family moved to a house in the South Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. There, they were close to their church, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic — a plus for the devout Byzantine Catholic family. Young Andy attended mass with his mother multiple times a week, where he was drawn to the church’s icon paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mother and the Saints.
Warhol was described as a shy and delicate child. He suffered from Sydenham chorea at a young age, a neurological disorder and complication of scarlet fever characterized by involuntary movements to the extremities commonly known as St. Vitus dance. He was confined to bed at times, and to entertain himself, he would draw, listen to music, read comics and hang pictures of celebrities around his room — a fact Warhol referenced later in life as an important point in his personal and artistic development. Also around this time, although America was in the midst of the Great Depression and the family could afford few luxuries, his parents bought him his first camera, and he set up a makeshift darkroom in the basement.
When his father died unexpectedly when Warhol was only fourteen, Andrej stipulated in his will that his savings go towards Andy’s higher education. Both of his parents were greatly supportive of his artistic endeavors, and Warhol later flourished at the Carnegie Institute for Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) studying pictorial design.
Upon his college graduation in 1949, Warhol immediately moved to New York City to pursue a career as a commercial artist. He had always been preoccupied with image and identity; this was perhaps a result of his own perceived physical imperfections that stemmed from his scarlet fever pigmentation issues, which made him a target for bullies in his youth. It was when he moved to New York that he dropped the “a” in Warhola and began to cultivate different personas by experimenting with his clothing and wigs.
Work came to him almost immediately; his illustrations appeared in a 1949 issue of Glamour magazine fittingly alongside a story entitled “Success is a Job in New York.” Warhol continued to market himself successfully as a commercial artist throughout the 1950s. His distinct “blotted line” ink illustration style that combined drawing with printmaking caught the attention of many art directors, and his work was in high demand. He won numerous awards for his work from the Art Directors Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and his clients included Tiffany & Co., The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, NBC and others.
His financial successes as a commercial artist afforded him the opportunity to explore fine art ventures. In 1952, he held his first solo show at the Hugo Gallery in New York entitled Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote, and in 1956, he participated in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Although illustration had brought him financial stability, Warhol wanted to challenge the fine art world, and he turned his attention to his life-long fascination with popular culture. He wanted to elevate popular and commercial culture to the realms of high art. Despite Warhol’s name being synonymous with Pop Art, it actually emerged as a movement in England in the mid-1950s, a few years before Warhol became a practitioner. He created his first Pop Art paintings in 1961, drawing inspiration from comic books and advertisements, before turning to the medium he would become famous for — silkscreen printing.
Silkscreening was a commercial process used for printing product labels, textiles and other mass-produced items. Warhol appreciated the process for its ability to allow him to easily reproduce images that were already available for public consumption like publicity or tabloid shots of celebrities, and to then easily reproduce his own screen-printed artworks. In the early 1960s, Warhol embarked upon a series of silkscreen portraits of well-known celebrities, focusing on those with an almost mythical status as Hollywood icons, including Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. The same year, he created his uber-famous Campbell’s Soup Cans silkscreen series for his first solo pop art exhibit at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
Warhol’s Pop Art compositions were not just a reflection or imitation of the culture they sprung forth from, but critical observers of that culture. He wanted his works to have a mass appeal just as the people and products they depicted possessed, but also a subversive undercurrent. He appropriated these images from mass media, often repeating them over and over on the same canvas, as both a celebration and critique of contemporary culture. His Pop Art created a sensation in the art world and launched him into the realm of celebrity.
The 1960s and 70s were a prolific period for Warhol, and during this time he extended his talents into other fields such as film, publishing, performance art, writing, television and music. He grew his public persona through his projects, personality and a new workspace. His iconic Midtown Manhattan studio known as the Factory, painted silver and draped in aluminum foil, became the place to be in New York. There, he surrounded himself with an ever-rotating group of hipsters and starlets like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Edie Sedgwick — those who represented the American dream of money, celebrity and success. He became a mentor and inspiration to such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
Some of the final work Warhol embarked upon and some of the most personal was his Last Supper series of silkscreens of Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Renaissance fresco. The works were commissioned in 1984 by Alexander Iolas who gave Warhol his first solo show in 1952, and Warhol derived his image from a black and white photograph of a widely circulated 19th-century engraving. Unlike many of his other serialized works of soup cans and Marilyns, Warhol's Last Supper series has an emotional impact that elevates it beyond Pop Art's exploration of mass production and over popularization. Perhaps the intimacy of the scenes derives from Warhol's own nostalgia for the work tied to his Catholic upbringing; in his childhood home hung a reproduction of da Vinci's painting. With both aesthetic and sentimental ties to the image, it is little wonder that Warhol's obsession with his Last Supper cycle preoccupied the last year of his life.
At the opening of his Last Supper paintings in Milan, Warhol began complaining of pain in his right abdomen. He died prematurely at the age of 58 in February 1987 following a gall bladder surgery, and by the time of his death, he was one of the most prolific and well-known artists the world had ever seen. He was buried next to his mother and father at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
One of the most iconic artists in history, Andy Warhol was known for making art his “brand” and raising questions about originality and reproduction, as well as the nature of celebrity, persona and the outward image. The issues raised by the artist in the mid-20th century remain just as relevant in today’s contemporary art landscape. In many ways, his highly recognizable art and his iconic persona have been reabsorbed into popular culture, a fact that would surely fascinate Warhol were he alive today.