The first segment of a two-part show about Andy Warhol on PBS last night revealed his beginnings, his genius, and some aspects of his life, which itself was a component of his art. Subject matter to the contrary, Warhol was a top-tier artist of his generation, one who changed the way the world (and the U.S. in particular) sees itself.
His career began as a commercial illustrator in New York City in the 1950's, and he was one of the best. He worked for magazines, ad agencies, and industrial products for the home such as wallpaper. He had a strong interest in printing techniques and a deft way of minimalist design. He was in great demand as a graphic artist, but he wanted to be taken seriously in the world of fine art. When the most accepted practitioners of fine art of his day refused him "admission to their club," that is, when they avoided him and seemed to dismiss him as a commercial talent only, he persisted. At one point he had a huge crush on Truman Capote, whose flattering, effeminate pictures adorned his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms,, but even the flamboyant Capote wouldn't take him seriously.
The post WWII art world was embracing Abstract Impressionism. It seemed the be-all-and-end all of what Art was all about. There was Norman Rockwell on one hand, illustrating an America to come home to, and Jackson Pollack dripping paint onto canvasses in an emotional effort to carve out meaning in rebellion and rule-bending. In between the extremes, new work was being seen, not quite abstract, but not quite realistic either. The subject matter was not the point. These artists approached the task of helping a new America define itself in a different way. They drew inspiration from ordinary objects, from comic strips, from the everyday life of the new, affluent, consuming public. Someone said to Andy Warhol, "Paint what you love! You love money, paint pictures of money. Paint something that people look at every day, like a can of soup."
According to the Ric Burns documentary, those words were his inspiration. Realizing that Campbell Soup had 32 varieties, he set out painting individual portraits of each of them, to be displayed as a whole. The gallery owner who bought the cans filled his gallery with them and was amazed by the profundity of being surrounded by the work day by day. He bought the exhibit from Warhol for $1,000 with the promise that he would never let it be broken up and that he would ultimately sell it to a major museum, to be displayed as one piece.
Warhol apparently did love Campbell's Soup. He ate it with a sandwich every day of his life. He loved American icons, particularly movie stars, and he loved celebrity itself. His work held a mirror up to American life after the war. His work said, "We are not Norman Rockwell's country any more. We are in the hands of the mass marketers and we might as well like it."
Warhol himself actually 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. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. 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. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
He was expert at technical execution, and spent a great deal of his life working out new approaches, such as applying color to a canvas and then silk-screening a black and white photo image over it. This resulted in the canvases of of repeated images that look distinct one from the other -- the color is in one place on one, different on the next one, causing the impression of a piece of movie film that might have been discarded, tampered with, just as the beautiful subject of the photo was. Reality and art blurred as one statement is made by the artist.
Warhol may have invented the celebrity culture we now live in. His fascination with fame was all-consuming. Always painfully self-conscious about his looks, he had plastic surgery, wore obvious wigs, and could not bear to be touched. But he needed to be a star, and he became one. His work and his life changed the very atmosphere of the world.
He invented the phrase that I hear probably every day of my life: In the future, everybody in the world will be alloted fifteen minutes of fame. It's used so often it's now just thrown out as, "Well, he's had his 15 minutes." Some people think he designed the label for Campbell Soup. He may as well have. I never open one of those cans without thinking of him.