Warhol, Andy 1928–1987
Andy Warhol, American icon and pop artist par excellence, began his career as a commercial and design artist in New York. A painter, a filmmaker and photographer, a writer and poet, and a practicing Catholic, he captured the essence of American culture in his brief and dramatic life. A leading figure in the arts, he also challenged conventions by boldly exploring his own homosexuality.
Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Forest City, Pennsylvania, on August 6, 1928, to Czechoslovakian immigrants. He changed his name to Andy Warhol when he moved to New York where, in 1952, his mother joined him. She did not sit on the side but helped her son with his design production, coloring and inscribing the objects, sometimes even signing them. In this period Warhol produced a set of prints of women's dress shoes playfully titled "À la recherche du shoe perdu," an obvious allusion to French intellectual and writer Marcel Proust's (1871–1922) À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of things past). The American shoe is pronounced identically to the French chou, which means cabbage but also refers to a puff pastry filled with cream. Such chous, mounted in pyramids, are a staple of French wedding receptions. But chou is also a common term of endearment. Gender games abound in Warhol's production.
Warhol was one of the leaders of pop art, an art movement that sought to exploit the images and motifs of popular culture, especially advertisements and mass media. Warhol had wanted to focus on comics but felt that this area had become the property of another prominent American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997).
Instead, Warhol turned his attention to consumer products such as Campbell's soup cans, Coca-Cola, cartons of Brillo soap pads, Del Monte peach halves, and Heinz tomato ketchup. The soup cans are most often lined up like soldiers in an endless series, displayed as they would be in a grocery store. But food was not always so appealing in Warhol's paintings. In Tunafish Disaster, Warhol interlaces rows of seized, potentially lethal, cans of tuna with rows of female faces. Critics agree that his corpus comments on American consumer society. Yet all these products are female gendered, representing objects that are either prepared as food (e.g., the soup cans) or objects used to clean dirty dishes and pans (e.g., Brillo soap pads). Warhol's consumerism has a predilection for the domestic, female-coded space of the kitchen. This can be seen in Warhol's works in which S&H Green Stamps fill the canvas. S&H Green Stamps were commonly given out in grocery stores. Housewives or children glued them into booklets redeemable for purchases.
Warhol loved series—cows, flowers, dollar bills. After the death of Marilyn Monroe, he created series of the actress in strikingly bright psychedelic colors that highlighted her face, as well as a series of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These works form part of Warhol's death corpus that includes car crashes repeated in series.
But it was not simply consumerism/domesticity and the morbid that attracted Warhol. His series Piss & Sex Paintings and Drawings features overtly sexual pieces, with eroticized male sexual organs in various degrees of erection. For Warhol, "homosexuality, like sex in general, was … natural" (Warhol 2002, p 6). He called his painted male torsos landscapes.
Warhol's photography, which he took up later in his career, is as powerfully gendered as his other works. His series Self-Portrait in Drag shows Warhol's ability to play gender games. In the series Bananas, a clearly phallic meaning is intended. In viewing this series one watches Warhol as he inserts an enormous, partly peeled banana into his mouth.
Gender imbued Warhol's work in different ways. His cinematic production included Ladies and Gentlemen (1975), which, according to Claudia Bauer, involved a reworking "of photographs of homosexuals and transvestites" (2004, p. 50). Bauer further mentions that "in recognition for his contribution to the understanding of homosexuality, he [Warhol] received an award from the New York Popular Cultural Association, but the series was not exhibited in the USA" (2004, p. 50). When an attempt was made on his life in 1968, Warhol was forced to undergo medical operations. "His upper torso was covered in long scars and required the constant support of a medical corset: 'I looked like a dress designed by Dior—no, by Yves Saint Laurent. Seams everywhere'" (2004, pp. 41-42). In this statement, the male envisions his body as a female garment.
Inspired by the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci's (1452–1519) Annunciation, Warhol, three years before his death, painted an Annunciation, striking by its absence of the two traditional characters: the handsome male angel and the chastely beautiful Virgin Mary. Warhol's interpretation (copied from a detail in da Vinci's original) includes two hands, one on each side of the painting stretched toward one another, against a landscape with a building on the side. Warhol's renditions of the same artist's The Last Supper, completed one year before his death, attracted more attention. Other Renaissance artists, including Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) and Paolo Uccello (1397–1475), also inspired Warhol.
Warhol, no fan of hospitals—having already experienced them after the attempt on his life—had to undergo a gall bladder operation in 1987. In fact, he never uttered the word hospital, referring to it as the place. Complications from the operation led to his demise on February 22 of that year. A mass held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church was followed by a funeral procession to St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, located in the suburb of Bethel Park. A memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York drew more than two thousand people, including some of the world's most famous artists, such as Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), and David Hockney (b. 1937), and television personalities such as Don Johnson (b. 1949) of Miami Vice. Catholicism was important to Warhol. He attended church regularly and had an audience with Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) in 1980.
Warhol was the artist of mass consumption. But there can be seen in his obsession with series a fear of loss. It is said that he named all his male cats Sam, a repetition that could be seen as an urgent need to secure the future against death. In Warhol's case the future has ratified his position as one of America's most influential figures, whose artistic devices and witty aphorisms have become part of the American visual and cultural landscape.
Bauer, Claudia. 2004. Andy Warhol. Munich: Prestel.
Bockris, Victor. 2003 (1989). Warhol: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Colacello, Bob. 1990. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. New York: HarperCollins.
Hackett, Pat, ed. 1989. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Warner Books.
Honnef, Klaus. 2000. Andy Warhol, 1928–1987: Commerce into Art, trans. Carole Fahy and I. Burns. London: Taschen.
Schaffner, Ingrid. 1999. The Essential Andy Warhol. New York: Abrams.
Warhol, Andy. 1975. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Warhol, Andy. 1999. Andy Warhol: Photography. Zurich: Stemmle Publishers.
Warhol, Andy. 2000. Andy Warhol: Series and Singles. Basel: Fondation Beyeler.
Warhol, Andy. 2002. Piss & Sex Paintings and Drawings. New York: Gagosian Gallery.
Warhol, Andy, and Pat Hackett. 1980. POPism: The Warhol '60s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.