Focus

An analysis of Andy Warhol and his work

Much has been said about Andy Warhol, his art and his decadent personality since the 1960s. Following up from my last post which introduced Pop Art, I reckoned a little could be said here about probably one of America’s most famous artists, in the shape of an essay analysing the extent to which Andy Warhol’s writings and public statements help us understand his art.

Born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, where he later studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1945 to 1949, he originally started as a successful commercial artist in New York, then redirected his career towards fine arts from 1961. This step within the world of advertising had a great impact on his later view of art, and his interest in mass-produced pieces already showed through his fashion drawings, which he made to look printed.This would only be the beginning of what he will later be known for: popular, processed art.

Andy Warhol, Untitled, 1955, photolithograph with watercolour additions

By relating to Warhol’s writings and interviews through an attempted analysis of his public persona, this essay will weigh the importance of his statements with regards to his career, in order to judge the extent to which his own words explain his art.

Captivated by modern life, Warhol based his first works on commercials, then evolved to making sculptures and paintings of commodities. His career, enhanced by his fascination for death, rapidly developed into the widely recognisable colourful silk-screens of icon and mediatised disasters. His artistic interest finally settled for underground film-making from the mid-1960s.

From the beginning, his artistic intentions are clear: “art should [not] be only for the select few, but for the mass of American people.” Fascinated by consumerism and using his previous knowledge of the manipulative power of the media, he bases his art on advertisements, so that “anybody walking down Broadway could recognize [it] in a split second.”

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads, Heinz Tomato Keptchup, Campbell’s Tomato Juice, Del Monte Peach Halves, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen ink on wood in four parts

Warhol transformed supermarket products into art, representing the consumerist America he flourished in and everything fantastic about it. As he famously said, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. […] A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

He stretched this idea of appealing to the masses in an interview with Gene Swenson in 1963, comparing consumerism to communism, and claiming that liking things is a machine-like behaviour because “you do the same thing every time […] over and over again”.

Already then, he represented his appeal of mechanical behaviour in his art by de-humanizing his paintings, letting no personal touch nor brush marks show.

This thought quickly evolved when he “accidentally” discovered silk-screening in August 1962. This industrial printing technique of newspaper photographs was the perfect tool for Warhol to carry on his central idea: he claimed using the silk-screen technique in order to do everything the way a machine would.
Warhol’s new-found silk-screening technique together with his fascination for publicity and the de-humanization of society translated into the “Death” series, of which the genesis is best explained by the artist himself:

“It was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. […] Every time you turned on the radio they said something like, ‘4 million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.”

Andy Warhol, 129 Die in Jet, 1962, acrylic and pencil on canvas

Following this last idea of repetition’s minimising effect, he recreated the effect of mediatic repetition, numbing all feeling, for “if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning”

Warhol’s words on the “Death” series explain his diffusing of everyday images through relentless repetition, constantly relating back to the machines of the media. Without his personal explanations, the pieces would seemingly be mere reproductions of newspaper photographs, empty of any message.

Adding to this, he claims in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975) : “when I have to think about it, I know the picture is wrong”. By creating silk-screens of images found in the newspaper, his influence on the pieces was minimal, which only adds to his cultivated anti-personal art. He even states that his commercial drawings had more feelings than his works as an artist, as he worked on them more than on his prints.
Creating artworks using an industrial technique only forged even more his focus on making art which lacked human touch, leading him to create pieces any of his assistants could make, pieces so anti-personal that their author isn’t identifiable through the work.

His repeated fascination for making machine art is the key to understanding the cynical parallel he makes with the machine-like behaviour of his contemporary society.

So far, each of his phases and the intentions behind them are best explained by the artist himself.

Yet, the best aspect of the silk-screens, is that they allowed Warhol to create a persona to go with them, a “glacial enigma” which he cultivated.

Warhol lost himself in being his art, making it important to not only judge what he said, but most importantly how he said it. In interviews, he was blank, a machine, even making others speak for him or asking to simply be given words to repeat.
Described as “the most enigmatic face of the sixties”, this public mask emanates from the inner concept of his art: publicity and its power, leading to America’s loss of human nature and how people “forgot what emotions were supposed to be” which, he claims, is more or less what happened to him. He would fade any trait of personality out in order to just be Andy Warhol, Pop Artist, the human form of his art, one of his flat, superficial silk-screens. In interviews, his non-engaging attitude and distance make it hard to distinguish the man from the image.
This persona became the message of his art, and as he pushed it to the extreme, this alter-ego was what he wanted us to remember of him and of his art. He fed the public a blurred self, through which he delivered his representation and dark admiration of 1960s America’s emotional degradation through mass consumption.
While other artists create pieces requiring the viewer’s reflection to fully exist, Warhol, via his calculated public persona and cleverly enigmatic statements, produced pieces to which he gave us a meaning to adhere to. His added personality became such a part of his art that, altogether, it does not really let us understand his art freely by ourselves, as we need him to guide us in his thoughts.

This control and influence make Warhol’s statement nearly vital to understanding his art – the way he wanted it to be understood, at least.

However, at a time where art was being dissected to its finest essence and meaning, Warhol was apparently making art for fun, or for which an elaborated philosophical understanding was not needed. In his later career, after making a clear distinction between the time when he used to do things and when he started producing things (ie; commercial portrait commissions) he admitted in 1981 to painting being “an excuse to listen to really good music” and to occupy himself by “doing the same things everyday”.

Claiming to having no real intentions, nor trying to educate people while producing art – paintings or films – Warhol passed his art as pretty useless. However, just as his films were experiments to test an audience’s reaction, I believe his art was a test to the boundaries of his fame. Upon producing the Jewish Geniuses series, he reportedly wrote in his diary that “they’re going to sell” which gives us the real essence of what was behind his art.

Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, 1980, Synthetic polymer paint and silk-screen ink on canvas

I am not saying he was making art to make money – he was just as successful doing anonymous commercial work – but instead, I feel he gives away his understanding of marketing and of its central place in American culture, which he only perfected by playing around with his art, and pushed to the extreme.

This could mean that his public statements are not enough to understand his art – that his more personal writings are necessary. However, when writing “good business is the most fascinating kind of art” I think he sums up his whole artistic career ambitions: to be the entrepreneur of fame, which he later will fulfil even better when focusing on film-making, elevating poets and socialites to Superstars just through words and business intentions.

Admitting in 1967, after having stopped painting, that it was just a phase, Warhol established the fact he was then much more focusing on films than anything else because he found film-making more exciting. I do believe this is another key element to understanding why he produced art. Warhol was fascinated by fame just as a child would be by anything sparkling. The base of his art actually more seems like a game than anything else. The big kid in Warhol could, through art, play a role, test people’s wits and boundaries, as well as “make money to have candy.”

Having started in advertising, wishing to end as a “business artist”, Warhol confessed to having always been a commercial artist. His career only was a step-by-step evolution of his successful début in commercial art, from which he used his acquired knowledge of appeal and control to show 1960s America’s spiral of emotionless, mechanical and controlled consumerism, while being part of it.

The decadent personality he crafted over the years, seemingly emanating from the child within him, transformed him into a commodity as a living proof of the commercial and consumerist culture he was evolving in. He eagerly used what anyone can refer to for his art, using the media and everyday images in order to sell his thoughts. However, such an understanding does not come from his art alone. Indeed, the importance of Warhol’s public statements and pieces of writings is phenomenal in the sense that the artists deliberately rendered them crucial to the understanding of his art.

I would therefore conclude by stating that the extent to which he facilitates our understanding of his art is major. I can only dare to imagine what understanding Warhol’s art now would be if it wasn’t for the numerous interview footage and written pieces we have of him. His personality is a part of his philosophy, from which comes his art. His statements being intrinsically linked to his pieces, guide us to seeing what Warhol wanted us to see, making them forcefully necessary towards the understanding of not only Warhol’s art, but of Warhol’s alter-ego, which acts as a mask behind which the real Warhol can seek refuge, while being a screen on which is projected his views on his contemporary modern society.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1986, Acrylic paint and screenprint on canvas

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