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You’ve heard his name. You’ve seen the Campbell’s Soup cans. You might know something about The Factory. But perhaps you’ve wondered why Andy Warhol gets so much attention or why his work even matters. What’s the deal with Warhol, and is he worth your time and consideration? Here’s your answer.

Stay tuned for cases for other artists, living and dead!

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
(PBS Digital Intro plays)

Sarah: So you've heard of Andy Warhol and you know he did the soup cans and the portraits, but today I wanna tell you why his work really is interesting and worth your consideration.  Here's the case for Andy Warhol.  You know him to look like this, but Andrew Warhol was born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian immigrant parents, and started out looking like this.  He grew up sickly and spent a lot of time at home, drawing with his mom, but he eventually escaped to New York after graduating from Carnegie Tech in 1949.  He changed his name and quickly became a success as a commercial illustrator.  He developed a signature technique that allowed him to trace and copy images and create a delicate blotted line.  It was an early instance of his affinity for automation, or finding other people or processes that do the work for and with him.  He was determined to make it in the field of so-called "fine art," and started shopping for a way in.

Instead of making art for advertisements, he started making advertisements as art, choosing subject matter that would find traction with the emerging field of pop art.  He made paintings of Coca-Cola, S&H green stamps, and of course, Campbell's soup cans.  He saw these things as a common language, saying, "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest."  And it wasn't about the individual thing so much as the sheer abundance of things, which reflected the spread of mass manufacturing and growing post-war American consumer culture.  

Warhol started out using rubber stamps and stencils to make these paintings, but soon landed on silk screening as a way to speed things up.  He created his well-known factory and set to work with his assistance, rolling out product after product, displaying them in warehouse-like arrangements.  He was also interested in products of the human variety, and started making paintings of celebrities, reproducing images from publicity stills, newspapers, and magazines, making shred commentary on the celebrity as commodity.  

There are a number of subjects that recur in Warhol's work.  Shoes, products, money, celebrities, rich people, disaster, death, himself, shoes, products, money, celebrities, rich people, disaster, death, himself.  But these weren't just Warhol's obsessions.  They are deeply reflective of the culture of the time.  If you ascribe to the theory that the 20th century was the American century, then Warhol's work takes on even more importance.  His work charts the development of our obsession with fame and questions the growing commercialization and uniformity of most areas of American life.  Warhol was an extremely astute businessperson, who formed his first corporate entity, Andy Warhol Enterprises, in 1957, and he never really stopped working for-hire.  He made thousands of commissioned portraits, the first of which was this one of art collector Ethel Scull, based on photos taken by a machine, or rather, a photo-booth.  

By the 1970s, commissioned portraits were a solid chunk of Warhol's income.  Anyone could have their portrait made for $25,000, with additional canvases available at discounted rates.  Along with his services, Warhol was also keen to trade on his own image, creating numerous self-portraits throughout his career and offering himself up for endorsements.  And of course, Warhol was not just an artist, but also a filmmaker, band manager, magazine publisher, and TV producer who fearlessly explored and embraced new media.  From the 1950s until his untimely death in 1987, Warhol was a shape-shifter, always open to the new, always innovating, and always reflecting the time.  Like Jay-Z but far earlier, he understood that to be an artist in a market economy meant not being a businessman, but being a business, man.  And he turned himself into a globally recognized brand.  

People debate whether Warhol defined an ad-driven factory made culture or was defined by it, but his work remains important because what mattered to Warhol proved prophetic.  People called him a sellout, but by laying bare the relationship between commerce and art, Warhol nullified the very idea of a sellout, and in the process made possible the work of Jeff Koons, Shepard Fairey, and so many contemporary artists.