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Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol  Flowers, 1964  acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on linen  80 7/8” x 81” inches  205.4 x 205.7 cm

Andy Warhol is one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century and the founder of the Pop Art movement. He elevated celebrity to an art form and ignited a major shift in the art world by appropriating popular culture.


Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warhol was the youngest child of parents who immigrated to the United States from Miko (now Mikova) in Slovakia. His father was a coal miner and their family of five lived a modest life in Pittsburgh’s South Oakland neighborhood. When he was about eight years old, Warhol developed a complication from scarlet fever known as Sydenham’s chorea. The rare neurological disorder causes rapid, involuntary movements of the face, feet, and hands, muscle weakness, and emotional problems. Often confined to bed during his childhood, he developed a phobia of hospitals and spent a great deal of time in the care of his mother Julia. Their relationship was very close, and he would later recall the days he spent with her drawing, listening to the radio, and collecting movie star photos as critical to shaping his personality and lifelong interests. His father Andrew, Sr., unfortunately died in an accident when Warhol was just 13.


Warhol attended Schenley High School in his neighborhood, graduating in 1945. He originally planned to study art education, but instead enrolled in the commercial art program at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) just blocks from his childhood home. He was a prolific and involved student. A member of several clubs and editor of the college magazine, he was the only male member of the school’s Modern Dance Club. His newly discovered love of dance carried over into his work, often focusing on dance subjects in his illustrations. It was also at Carnegie that he developed one of his signature drawing techniques known as the blotted line, in which he inked an image in reverse on vellum and then tamped it down on clean paper.


In the summer before his junior year, Warhol took a job designing display windows for Horne’s Department store in downtown Pittsburgh. The experience taught him firsthand how to entice customers to buy products using design techniques. Another influence during his college years was his classmate Phillip Pearlstein, who moved to New York City with Warhol after graduation and would likewise become an important luminary of American art.


In New York, Warhol worked freelance as an advertising illustrator and began showing his blotted ink drawings for shoe ads at the Bodley Gallery. RCA Records hired him to design album covers and other promotional materials, an exciting job during the industry’s expansion in the 1950s. Throughout this stage of his career, Warhol valued a casual approach to image making that could result in exciting accidents, saying, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” In 1962, the Stable Gallery in Los Angeles exhibited his first show on the West Coast, including paintings of several subjects for which he would become famous: Marilyn Diptych, 100 Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, and 100 Dollar Bills. The deliberately mechanical and impersonal style of the works emulated that of mass culture, which Warhol found intensively fascinating.


During the 1960s, Warhol adopted the technique of silkscreen printing, ideal for his goal of increasing production and further mechanizing his creative process to reflect pop culture. He established “The Factory,” in New York, a studio where his large group of assistants printed repetitive images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Campbell Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, Elvis Presley, Brillo boxes, and other signature subjects under his direction. Some of these works would grow monumental, like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Mao (1973), a 15-foot-tall towering photographic image that appears to have been taken directly from a newspaper and re-printed on a massive scale. Flamboyant brush strokes in bold colors are silkscreened over the black and white image, imitating graffiti. Warhol was fascinated by the appearance of Mao in mass communications as China and the U.S. opened relations, parodying the enormous propaganda portraits of the leader seen in Chinese cities. Throughout his career, Warhol showed uncanny insight on the subject of celebrity and mass culture in all of their forms, famously predicting, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”


Warhol experimented in almost endless modes during the 1960s. His interest in producing underground documentary movies led to many films; the best known of these entitled Sleep (1963) depicts writer John Giorno sleeping for five hours. He experimented extensively with sculpture, as in his Brillo Box (Soap Pads) of 1964, and with environmental installations like Silver Clouds (1966), which uses silver balloons and was developed with Billy Klüver. It was also during this period that he adopted the band the Velvet Underground, giving them a central role in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance art show. In 1969, Warhol and British journalist John Wilcock co-founded Interview Magazine, the “Crystal Ball of Pop” that continues to cover celebrities and artists today.


As Warhol expanded his work, The Factory attracted an increasingly eclectic mix of artists – writers, actors, musicians, and underground celebrities – whom he dubbed “Superstars.” The group functioned as a collective, playing a collaborative role in all of his creative projects. Adopting a “flat” demeanor in public and a platinum wig, Warhol fashioned himself into a magnetic character at the center of the art world’s avant-garde, very much a star in his own right. In 1975, he published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to Z and Back Again.


During the 1980s, Warhol enjoyed massive celebrity status and acceptance into the art world establishment that initially rejected his embrace of popular culture. He spent much of the decade collaborating more selectively with young artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. He passed away unexpectedly in 1987 following complications from a routine gall bladder surgery.

The Andy Warhol Museum opened in Pittsburgh in 1994 and is the largest museum in the U.S. dedicated to a single artist. Its holdings include more than 12,000 works, many donated by the Dia Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts created through his estate. Many other American and international museums hold significant collections of his work, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and several others.

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