Focus: King of Pop Andy Warhol
Art Republik looks into the King of Pop Art himself, Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, which dominated the contemporary art scene from the 1960s. His legacy is enduring. In 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted the exhibition ‘Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years’, showcasing 45 Warhol works together with 100 works by 60 other artists created in response to or influenced by his works. On display were works from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Ai Weiwei, which spanned the gamut of media from paintings to photographs.
It is not only in the realm of fine art that Warhol’s influence is significant. In 2014, Diane von Furstenberg worked with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to create a capsule collection celebrating 40 years of her iconic wrap dresses featuring prints of Warhol’s works, such as the ‘Flower’ series, which he began in 1964. Earlier in 2013, Prada had used the same series for motifs in its Spring/Summer collection. Here is a look at Warhol’s contributions to pop art, and why he remains relevant and popular to this day.
The Birth of Pop Art
Pop art is an international art movement that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The term was coined by English art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1958 to refer to popular art forms, such as advertising and film. In Britain, artists such as Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton became associated with pop art as an art movement. Hamilton’s famous work, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ (1956) featured a sitting room made of cut-outs from various magazines and photographs.
It was in America, however, that pop art as we know it today exploded in the early 1960s, with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann quickly establishing their pop artist identities through artworks that re-appropriated everyday objects into works of art.
In addition to using consumer products as subject matter, pop artists also adopted the style used in their production or marketing. For instance, Lichtenstein used Benday dots – coloured dots that were placed evenly in a particular area, often utilised in newspaper and magazine advertising – for his blown-up frames of comic strips.
For Warhol, his repeated silkscreen printing of images replicated the process of the mass production of consumer products. The artist had quipped in an interview, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”
Warhol’s work as a commercial artist paved the way for his pop art style, which bore the polished aesthetic of advertisement campaigns that he was used to working on. After graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was born and raised, to New York in 1949. He had a successful career as a commercial artist in the 1950s, creating fashion illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines and window displays in department stores such as Bonwit Teller.
Indeed, Warhol had his finger on the pulse of what appealed to the masses, and democratized fine art with his easily understood works. Warhol once asserted that the viewers took to pop art because “it looks like something they know and see every day”. Due to its accessibility, pop art appealed to a wide audience traditionally not interested in art, and received coverage as early as 1962 in mass-media magazines such as Time and Life.
The most recognizable of Warhol’s works are the ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ (1962), featuring 32 canvases depicting hand-painted renditions of the 32 different soup varieties Campbell’s Soup Company offered at the time. These were first displayed at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 by the gallerist on a ledge as if they were on a shelf to be bought.
The multiplicity of an image in Warhol’s work brought attention to the ubiquity of the chosen object. ‘100 Cans’ (1962) is another early work featuring Campbell’s soup cans. It was painted by hand with the use of stencils. ‘200 One Dollar Bills’ (1962) from the ‘Dollar Bill’ series, featuring a 20-by-10 grid of dollar bills was created based on the same idea, and using the same method.
Another household item that achieved iconic status in Warhol’s hands was the ‘Brillo Box’, among other cartoned goods, which Warhol reproduced as wooden sculptures, screen-printing their packaging onto plywood blocks. These were exhibited at Stable Gallery in 1964.
The ‘Death and Disaster’ series is a less innocuous set of works, which includes works such as ‘Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times’ (1963). Warhol photo-silkscreened images of tragedy from newspapers repeatedly across a canvas. This was done through the transference of images photographically to the screens, a commercial printmaking technique he adopted from late 1962. The result was sharper images than the hand-painted ones he had previously produced.
The series was first exhibited at Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in Paris, and was the artist’s inaugural European solo show. Incidentally, Warhol’s most expensive work sold at auction to date is from the series, with ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’ (1963) fetching a hammer price of US dollars 94 million at Sotheby’s in November 2013.
Warhol also deployed images of celebrities in his work, such as Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Marilyn Diptych’ (1962) and ‘Gold Marilyn Monroe’ (1962). The lasting appeal of the pop artist’s works can be seen in the prices they have fetched at recent auctions. Christie’s New York offered, in November 2014, ‘Triple Elvis [Ferus Type]’ (1963) featuring a life-sized Elvis Presley in triplicate and ‘Four Marlons’ (1966), a reproduction of a still from the cult 1953 film ‘The Wild One’ featuring Marlon Brando. The two pieces fetched US dollars 73 million and 62 million respectively.
In making his artworks using readymade images and a conveyer belt system of printing and application of colour, there was controversy about the authorship of his works, with their mechanical production relegated to the hands of his assistants in his studio, aptly called The Factory. This foreshadowed the practice that many contemporary artists adopt of employing artist assistants to make their artworks based on the ideas they come up with.
Photographing and Filming Life
In another prescient move, Warhol meticulously documented his daily life on an audio tape recorder and a camera, long before the advent of social media such as Instagram and the creation of social influencers. Warhol had explained, “A picture means I know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.”
Among the pictures he took with his Polaroid camera, which he carried with him from the late 1950s, were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of still shots of everything from the minutiae of his daily life at the Factory to the time spent in places such as Studio 54 in the 1970s. It is no surprise that he once said, “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person”. Many of the Polaroids were headshots of celebrities who worked in music, fashion and film, and included people such as singer Dolly Parton, fashion editor Diana Vreeland and actor Jack Nicholson.
Not only were Warhol’s works iconic, he had become an icon himself. For instance, instead of putting a Warhol artwork on the cover of the December 1964 issue of ArtForum, which featured the artist, there was a photograph taken of him by actor Dennis Hopper tessellated on the cover, attesting to his celebrity, and his signature pop art style all at once.
While Warhol continued to create works in his instantly recognizable style, such as the painterly silkscreened ‘Mao’ series in playful colour combinations in the early 1970s, he had begun to move into the realm of filmmaking from 1963. He produced films such as ‘Sleep’ (1963), which features footage of a friend sleeping for over five hours, and the similarly static eight-hour-long black-and-white film ‘Empire’ (1964) which shows the empire State Building from light to dark.
It was with ‘The Chelsea Girls’ (1966) that Warhol enjoyed commercial success for his film work. Different footage was played on two screens simultaneously featuring conversations and monologues with his muses, or people he found interesting. They were called Warhol superstars, and hung out at The Factory. Based on the belief that “everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, he recruited them to participate in his works, such as in this film, which included the likes of singer-songwriter Nico and model and actress International Velvet.
Leaving a Legacy
Warhol was revolutionary in coming up with new ideas to capture his life as art. From illustrating to painting to silkscreen printing to film-making, he sought at every turn to try innovative ways to capture the beauty and strangeness of life in equal parts. His circle of celebrity friends belied an introverted nature that afforded him a keen sense of observation of life, which comes through in his visually impactful works that remain sought after to this day.
During Singapore Art Week 2016, the exhibition ‘Andy Warhol: Social Circus’ will be on show at Gillman Barracks, made possible by The Ryan Foundation, set up by nature enthusiast and art collector Ryan Su in December 2012 to promote nature conservation and arts education, including the organisation of art exhibitions for the public.
The exhibition will feature the biggest collection of the Polaroids to ever be shown in Asia. Some 30 Polaroids, drawn from Ryan’s collection and another overseas private collection, will highlight the who’s who of the New York celebrity scene from the 1960s to the 1980s, including Warhol himself, as well as the likes of Bianca Jagger, Paul Anka and Keith Haring.
Curator Khim Ong, who has worked closely with Ryan to put together the show, sees the opportunity to encourage private collectors to similarly share their collections with the public. Speaking about the value of the Polaroids that will be on display, she notes that as they were not made expressly as artworks but possibly as archival or source material, they can provide valuable insight into the artist’s practice, which to a significant extent was about making his life his art.
Art Republik speaks to Ryan Su about his collection of Warhol Polaroids as part of his wider collecting interests, his work with the foundation and what he hopes to achieve with the exhibition.
How did you come up with the title ‘Andy Warhol: Social Circus’?
Warhol was flooded with images of pop culture in his early, formative years. He loved magazines, witnessed the introduction of television, the high-street shopping boom and collected photos of stars. This visual culture was targeted at consumerism. However, coming from a poor family from Pittsburgh, he could not participate in it. As an outsider, he was an observer peering in. Later in life and coming full circle, celebrities, artists and fashion designers surrounded him as his fame as a pop art artist soared. At The Factory and Studio 54, his social circle expanded nightly – to include socialites, silver screen luminaries and denizens of the New York underworld and counter-culture, such as drag queens and drug addicts. But with their shenanigans, LSD, alcohol, debauchery and art-making, it soon became a ‘social circus’.
When did you begin to be interested in art?
For a long time, I found the type of art I was interested in intimidatingly hanging against white walls guarded by cold gallerists. I am sure many people interested in seeing art would share the same sentiment. My reservations have proven to be true to an extent. Nevertheless, I have met some of the most warm, kind, generous and fascinating people in the art world. Part of what I see myself doing with The Ryan Foundation is breaking down boundaries between the art world and the ‘public’. Doing a show like this would do just that!
When did you begin collecting? Does your collection have a specific theme or focus?
My art collection started by accident in London, where I went to study art law. I am inspired by nature and collect a lot of works that depict nature, even in abstract form – but sometimes I do deviate. I collect works from only a small number of artists. I like doing my own research and digging deep into their oeuvres, and building a meaningful collection from there. I also like to explore parts of their oeuvres that have received scant attention or are forgotten. It is this pursuit that keeps me going.
How did you come to own your first Andy Warhol’s Polaroids?
Warhol’s Polaroids are compelling. The social relevance of the Warhol’s self-portrait Polaroid is difficult to miss in this world of selfies – where narcissism, self- adoration, perfection and self-image pervade.
I acquired my first Polaroid when in was studying the UK. But very soon after, I tried to get rid of them and sell them because I could not keep them properly. At that time, I did not have a proper art storage facility, and I knew that taking them back to Singapore would destroy them as the tropical climate was not the most ideal. Several years later, I deeply regret my decision to get rid of them as I had some fantastic ones. Now, with a proper storage facility, I have built up the collection again. Better yet, they now have an audience!
What do you think makes Andy Warhol such an important figure in contemporary art and culture?
I believe that the more relevant and important argument as to why Warhol is such an important figure is that he is a visionary. Warhol had tremendous foresight. He dabbled in things and styles that would ultimately become trends. Who knew that camouflage prints would take the fashion world by storm, selfies would be the craze, or that people would be famous just for being famous?
What is favourite Andy Warhol work?
Among my favorites in this exhibition would be the Bianca Jagger Polaroids. They are rare in the sense that they form a triptych. The beauty of the Polaroid is that the only way to ‘reproduce’ them was to snap multiple shots – and each Polaroid is unique and special, having been taken split-seconds apart. They show the observer what Warhol himself sees throughout the multiple frames as his celebrity subject poses, almost like an animation. The high-contrast images created by the Polaroid camera left out blemishes and imperfections – furthering Warhol’s pursuit of perfection and glamour. The Bianca Jagger Polaroids encapsulate his signature styling and technique. She is at ease – her hair, face and neck are absolutely stunning.
How did this exhibition take form?
I had the idea of organising a private dinner party to go along with a private show that would include the Warhol Polaroids during Singapore Art Week 2016 for my special guests who would be flying in for the art fair and various events. I later decided to make it a public show instead. It would be amazing to share with everyone these Polaroids taken decades ago and for people to make a connection with selfies today.
Text by Nadya Wang
This article was originally published in Art Republik
All Polaroids courtesy Ryan Foundation. All other artwork images courtesy of the Andy Warhol Foundation