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Andy Warhol, the story of the most iconic artist

He showed us the myths and symbols of consumer society, telling us how we really are without judging. Let’s go through his life and art together.

Getty Images

“If you want to know everything about Andy Warhol, you only need to look at the surface of my paintings and of myself: I am there. There is nothing else behind”. That’s what the father of Pop Art used to say, one of the most iconic and influential artists of the 20th century.

Andy Warhol (Andrew Warhola) was born in Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, in 1928, from Czech immigrants. His love for art saved him from a miserable and lonely childhood. After graduating from Carnegie Institute of Technology in his home town, he moved to New York and was later followed by his widow mother, who will become a very important partner. 

His first works

We’re in the ‘50s, years of economic prosperity when consumer society started growing. The American myth of wealth for everyone was increasingly popular and becoming rich and famous was a legitimate dream. This shared ambition was fostered by cinema and television and echoed by slogans and billboards. The Big Apple was a fairyland where anything could happen, a culturally-active dream factory where Warhol started to get noticed. During the day, he worked as an advertiser for fashion magazines such as Vogue or Glamour and at night he focused on his creative projects. However, since the very beginning, the line between his two jobs was blurred. In fact, Andy Warhols first art works are based on the repetition and elaboration of images featuring industrial goods. In 1957, he founded his name-sake company to sell his works, following the traditional path of self-made men. 

Towards success

His artistic vision draw even more attention during the ‘60s. In 1962, a plane crash with 129 victims inspired his first collection of art pieces, called Death and Disaster. He was interested in relating with the reality that surrounded him, catching the dramatic aspects, yet emptying them of their meaning at the same time. There are no emotional feelings, complaints or social critiques in the way that Warhol transforms images from the crime beat. He had an external and detached view that overturned the common perception of an event or object to simply re-elaborate it in purely visual terms.

Therefore, an accident or an electric chair are not very different from a canned soup: cold frames in which the daily experience of the American society is crystallised. It’s in this period that the famous series of Campbell soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, the multicolour portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and others well-known people from the show business and politics came to light in his work. 

Talking about ‘100 Cans’, a spray and crayons painting on canvas featuring one hundred Campbell soup cans, Andy Warhol explained: “I used to eat it regularly, every day, for twenty years, if I’m not wrong, every day the same thing. Someone said that life dominated me and I liked this idea”.

Actually, what’s really important is not that the artist was able to find inspiration from his own life. But more that he was able to shed light on a popular issue, lived by all Americans, giving visibility and value to something that was already being represented. By drawing one hundred soup cans, one close to the other, Warhol showed us the real America, a country of consumerism and repetition, without showing off moral distance or dissociation but actually identifying himself with this lifestyle.

Pictures by: Getty Images

The reproducibility of his art

Warhol knew very well that the consumerism dream found its full expression in western democracies, and he showed it underlying the fact that we all have the same idols, we all think in the same way and we all eat the same soup. The poorest person in America drinks Coca-Cola just like the president Jimmy Carter or the unreachable Elizabeth Taylor. This point of view has a perfect correspondence also on a technical level: seriality is what distinguishes his works. It implies a repetitive and cold approach (inherited from his advertising job). His first silk-screened paintings (initially hand made and later endlessly reproduced mechanically), slowly turned into pure photography series. From here, it became easier to obtain the print matrix and hade-made ones consequently became rarer. 

Repetitiveness also had another effect: it defuses the concept of uniqueness of the art piece, favouring a mechanic-artistic procedure often carried out by teams of people. Warhol didn’t want to produce unique pieces like in the past.

He believed that images are products, goods to be consumed just like the objects they feature, where it’s harder to notice the artist’s touch. It’s no coincidence that the collective laboratory he founded was called Factory, an open house that was also a factory of ideas, “a creative assembly line” that manufactures pieces made by more than one person.


The Factory

A group of eccentric and talented people, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring, gravitated around Warhol (called ‘boss’ by everybody). They all had the same language and lifestyle, based on the acceptance of every kind of behaviour without judgement. Charismatic and contradictory, homosexual and catholic, popular and experimental, Warhol was in charge of expressing these concepts, and although he denied individuality he soon became a star. Being immortalised in his paintings, with vibrant colours, was a proof of your success as a person, something that all Vip people were aiming at. Meanwhile, his art spread all around the world: Kassel, Montreal, Osaka, Pasadena, Chicago, London, Paris and New York.



The cinema

Warhol did not limit himself to painting but tried to get in the cinema industry too. He was interested in the composition of a picture created from a specific point of view. His movies are like paintings that are not hung on walls but projected on screens. And for what concerns music, the artist supported some bands, among which the Velvet Underground, for whom he draw the famous cover of their debut album. He also worked for foreign singers such as Loredana Bertè.

His last years

Besides famous people, contemporary art was revisited by him too and deprived of its mystical aura. Between 1985 and 1987, Warhol made a series of big art works dedicated to the topic of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, following Pop Art style. The Last Supper will be his last work (he died at 54 in New York due to a surgery). The big painting, commissioned by Credito Valtellinese, is exposed in the new location of the bank, in front of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, where the original painting is located. The English title The Last Supper recalls soups and Warhol’s work.

Twenty years after his death, the power of his message didn’t die but actually keeps growing, making him the world’s most quoted artist after Pablo Picasso. What got our attention is the precision Warhol had in documenting the change of values brought by consumer society, a kingdom based on appearance and on accumulating goods. In the icons and myths spread around by mass media and represented by pop art, we can see our needs, increasingly less important and more induced by society and we feel the weight of a flattening homogenisation. Nevertheless, the magnetic power of pictures still captures our attention, and every judgement needs to surrender.


by Elisa Zagaria / 9 February 2018


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