Perhaps the best-known artist of the twentieth century, Andy Warhol delved into every means of cultural production, leaving behind a colossal artistic legacy. Most widely recognized for his 1960s Pop, silkscreened images of objects lifted from quotidian American life and those of Hollywood icons appropriated from the media, Warhol also made benchmark contributions in a multitude of other areas. He explored the realms of film, photography, video, and television, as well as publishing his own books and Interview magazine. Warhol's multifaceted output challenged the traditional hierarchy between artistic disciplines, presciently incorporating the mainstream into high art and vice-versa-a strategy practiced routinely in today's culture.
Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 6, 1928, Warhol studied at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1949, he moved to New York City and experienced almost immediate success as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer. Among his lucrative accounts were those for I. Miller shoe company and Tiffany & Co. His advertisements and fashion spreads graced the pages of Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, and The New York Times. In the 1950s, Warhol created whimsical drawings, gilded collages, and hand-colored picture books. Often executed with his trademark-a blotted-line technique in a purposefully naive style-these works reveal Warhol's talent as a draftsman. During these early years, Warhol laid the foundation for his practice of delegating stages of artistic production to assistants, and frequently threw "coloring parties," gatherings during which friends and associates assisted in hand-coloring his numerous works.
In 1960 Warhol began painting seriously. A lifelong preoccupation with appropriating existing pictorial imagery led him to derive his first subjects from comic strips and advertising. Warhol then turned to newspaper clippings and photo-booth photographs, among other sources, manipulating images through the silkscreen process by enlarging, repeating, overlapping, cropping, or smudging them so that they were altered in strategic, sometimes subtle ways. He thus fashioned distinctive artworks that simultaneously referenced the original source material. The medium of silkscreen, which he began to employ in 1962, enabled Warhol and his studio assistants to create a prodigious amount of painting and sculpture in a fashion that simulated a factory assembly line. Through this mechanized means of production Warhol capsized existing notions of authenticity and the value of the artist's hand.
Beginning in 1962, among the photographic images Warhol transformed into paintings were those of his favorite movie stars, which he had amassed since childhood. Culling specific pictures from his collection, Warhol produced likenesses of the cinematic luminaries he idolized, including Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley. Visually seductive works, these portraits epitomize stardom. As with all of his silkscreened paintings, Warhol produced multiple versions of these portraits, paralleling the media's power to generate fame through the proliferation of images.
The media exploited not only the allure of Hollywood personas, but also the morbid attraction disasters held for the public. Warhol was not immune to this phenomenon. Obsessed with the tabloids, he accumulated pictures of violent incidents reproduced in newspapers for his Disaster series dating from 1962–67. By manipulating and repeating the same gruesome images in canvases of varying color and size, he deftly remarked upon the anesthetizing effects that the media has on society. Like the tabloids themselves, the works in the Disaster series reduce each horrific event to a mere picture, which the viewer can visually consume and then discard.
Consumption in the United States of the 1960s extended beyond the domain of the visual and into that of the material. Partially in reaction to this decade of burgeoning materialism, Warhol took items from the daily life of middle-class America as his subject matter. He raided the shelves of the grocery store for ideas and created, for example, his signature Brillo boxes in 1964. These sculptures—which duplicate the product named—ingeniously referenced the growing consumer mentality of the United States while also disputing the traditional boundaries of art.
Warhol produced his silkscreened works in a studio dubbed "The Factory." His first Factory was born in 1963 and located on East 47th Street in New York. Painted silver and covered in tin foil by Factory regular Billy Name, this space became a mecca for artists, socialites, celebrities, and members of the New York avant-garde. At this time, Warhol purchased a 16mm movie camera, and, between 1963 and 1967, the Silver Factory was turned into a movie studio where Warhol and his collaborators made more than five hundred films. Many of these transcended traditional methods of filmmaking and consisted of unstructured, unscripted action. Personalities as diverse as model Edie Sedgwick, poet Taylor Mead, and actor Viva (Susan Hoffman) were featured in the films and became known as "Superstars."
Warhol's cultural endeavors extended beyond the visual arts and cinema. In 1965 he publicly declared his abandonment of painting and went on to seek new ways to blur the conventional boundaries of fine art. The next year he began to manage the rock band The Velvet Underground, and to produce multimedia "happenings," called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which were an amalgamation of performance, film, dance, and music. While The Velvet Underground played, films and colored lights were projected onto and behind the band. Concurrently, Superstars Gerard Malanga (a poet and Warhol's studio assistant) and Mary Woronov would perform the "Whip Dance," in response to the sadomasochistic lyrics of some Velvet Underground songs.
In 1968, shortly after the Factory moved to Union Square West, Warhol was shot and seriously wounded by Valerie Solanas, a woman who had appeared in one of his films. After his recovery, Warhol took a less active role in filmmaking and pursued other ventures. One of his new concepts was the publication of Interview magazine, which began as a monthly film journal but evolved into a celebrity magazine, profiling Warhol's glitterati friends, such as Mick Jagger, Halston, and Truman Capote. Such connections led to an increased demand for commissioned portraits by society notables in the 1970s. For these pictures, instead of using photo-booth strips as he had done in the 1960s, Warhol made flattering images of his subjects from Polaroid photographs taken by himself and his assistants.
In 1974 Warhol moved to a studio at 860 Broadway, the site of his last phase of production. During this era, Warhol's work sometimes focused on psychologically or politically loaded symbols. Starting in 1972, he reproduced the widely replicated picture of Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung in media ranging from drawings and paintings to wallpaper. In 1976 he created a series of Skull paintings, modern-day memento mori. Warhol then returned to other emblems of economic values, such as the communist Hammer and Sickle of 1976-77 and the American Dollar Sign of 1981, commenting on the propagation of these symbols and the importance with which they were invested.
From the late 1970s until his death, Warhol embarked upon an exploration of abstract imagery and investigated the possibilities inherent in completely nonrepresentational images. For his Oxidations of 1978, commonly referred to as "Piss paintings," Warhol asked people visiting his studio to urinate on canvases that were coated in copper metallic pigment. This was yet another Factory-style endeavor that required the participation of those around him. Unlike the Oxidations, Warhol's abstract works generally have a recognizable source rendered ambiguous through his manipulation of the image. This is the case with the Zeitgeist series of 1982, in which images of German monuments and stadiums are reduced to barely discernible, reductive patterns. Even Warhol's version of the psychiatrist's Rorschachs (1984)—mirror images resembling ink blots that he achieved by folding over the canvases themselves—thread their way between abstraction and "readable" images.
Fascinated by the act of recording and documenting, Warhol chronicled all aspects of his life and work with a tape recorder and later with a video camera. His earliest experiments with video, referred to as The Factory Diaries, date back to 1965. In the late 1970s and '80s, he became involved in television production, developing the cable programs Fashion, Andy Warhol's T.V., and Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes. These programs demonstrated Warhol's interest in diverse disciplines ranging from fashion to music, and featured pop-culture personalities from designer Betsey Johnson to musician Debbie Harry and model Jerry Hall.
At the end of his career, Warhol was still preoccupied with collaborative projects and worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente on canvases that integrated painting by all three. The series of works from 1986-The Last Supper, Camouflage, and Self-Portrait-reached monumental proportions and, in hindsight, seem to be reflections on mortality. By the time of his death on February 22, 1987, Warhol himself had become a trademark image in his own right.
Undeniably, more than any other artist of the twentieth century, Warhol has had a persistent impact on Western culture. He not only redefined the conception and meaning of "art" by elevating the banal to the iconic, but also targeted single images of great symbolic significance in contemporary culture. This acumen for selecting and recording the salient imagery which best encapsulates modern society has afforded Warhol's oeuvre an enduring resonance.