Celebrity, Identity, Money, Death and Time, 5 Themes In The Art of Andy Warhol
April 29, 2020

Celebrity, Identity, Money, Death and Time

5 Themes In The Art of Andy Warhol

 Andy Warhol is one of the most iconic artists in the history of experimental art. He pioneered the Pop Art movement, commercialising the genre in ways that had never been seen before.

Combining avant-garde concepts with highly-commercial techniques, he embraced consumerism and its aesthetic at a time when most of his contemporaries were rebelling against it, and his works were received with mixed reaction. Here we explore five reccuring themes throughout his body of work.



There's no denying that Warhol had an obsession with - and a total understanding of - celebrity and fame. As a young boy growing up in Pennsylvania, he would escape his boredom, his frequently bedridden illness, and his humble roots by obsessively leafing through glossy magazines. And it was exactly those sorts of magazines he went on to work for after his arrival in New York in 1949: Glamour, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar.

Edward Kennedy, 1980, Screenprint With Diamond Dust 

But what Warhol realised was that glamour was not just the preserve of the rich and well-born in America, it was democratic and available to all - hence the intense white trash glamour of his silkscreened Elvis triptych; hence the brooding power of his Marlon Brando; and hence, most famously, his iconic Marilyn Monroe diptych. Interestingly Warhol had not initially intended the work to be a diptych, but two separate pieces - each canvas featuring 25 Marilyns printed on a grid, one monochrome and the other full of colour. However, it was Emily Hall Tremaine, the collector, who bought both that suggested they ought to be a pair - to which Andy said, 'Gee whiz, yes.'



What is most telling about Warhol's fascination with fame is his understanding of how it all worked. How, given the right platform, anyone can be famous. Or said to be famous - like the 'superstars' he catapulted into notoriety in the films he mostly made at his New York 'Factory', ranging from the original factory girl, Edie Sedgwick, via the transgender Candy Darling to his then lover, John Giorno, of whom he made a 5 hour long film, Silent Sleeping, in 1964. No wonder it was Warhol who coined the now well-known, and almost prophetic, epigram, 'In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.'

Be Somebody With A Body, 1985, Synthetic Polymer Paint and Silkscreen on Canvas

His own fame, of course, far exceeds a mere quarter of an hour. And his image is as notorious as his art: the silver wigs, the blotchy pallor, the deadpan face are as well-known as the A-List stars he celebrated. As he became himself a cultural icon, the art dealer Ivan Karp suggested that Warhol make self-portraits. Which Warhol did. And he made many - often almost parodying his own image, as with 1986's famous Self-Portrait with Fright Wig. Originally coloured polaroid photos, a 40 inch by 40 inch acrylic silkscreen version sold for more than £6 million in 2014. Much photographed, he avidly documented his daily life in film too - becoming almost the first reality star and the first influencer, years before Instagram.



Warhol not only loved money, he also understood it. Born into a poor family, he knew its power. And he saw that art could be employed just as much to make a statement about a collector's wealth as about their taste. He famously remarked, 'Say you were to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.' No surprise then that he decided to feature money in his work, making the silkscreen 192 Dollar Bills in 1962.

Paramount and Ingrid The Nun, on display at Maddox Gallery Westbourne Grove

He understood mass consumerism too, just as he did fame and marketing, which is why many of works focused on everyday items. He said, 'You've got to find something that's recognisable to almost everybody. Something like a can of Campbell's soup.' The same applied to Coca Cola, of which he wrote, '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.' The products' appeal was universal, and he went on to mass produce images of these very items, which in turn made him an awful lot of money. Some critics may have thought him a sell out, but as Warhol said of himself, 'I was always a commercial artist.'



As fascinated as Warhol was with fame, he also had a deep preoccupation with mortality. In part, this reflects his deep Catholic faith. But he had twice come close to an early end, before he died aged 58 in 1987 - as a child he battled tuberculosis, and, after being shot by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas in 1968, had been declared clinically dead whilst on the operating table. (He eventually died of cardiac arrhythmia after a gall-bladder operation.)

Ingrid The Nun, 1983, Screenprint in Colours

There are many examples of his concern with death: his 1976 work, Skulls, shows his curiosity of the inevitable end, as does his 1963 piece, The Funeral - a photo of a crime family send-off repeated five times. Then there's With Foot and Tire, a grisly scene in which all you see is the sole of someone's shoe, the human having been crushed underneath a truck wheel. And from his Death and Disaster series, it is his Suicide (Purple Jumping Man), 1963 - depicting two haunting images in sequence in black and purple ink - that the art dealer Tony Shafrazi believes to be one of Warhol's greatest works.



While photography might freeze time - capturing a moment that would otherwise be lost - it doesn't beat time. It only brings our attention to the very nature of it, and how quickly, if you're not looking, an instant can be lost. This fascinated Warhol, and he wanted to document each and every passing moment. With his photography he could capture an image, and then repeat it - making what was perhaps an insignificant moment eternal. But with film he could document the very ordinary banality of life, capturing every real moment - and it has been argued that his 1964 film, Empire, is the only truly realistic documentary: eight hours and five minutes of slow footage of The Empire State Building, the shot unchanged throughout. Between 1963 and 1968 he produced close to 650 films, all of which he donated to New York's Museum of Modern Art for cataloguing in 1984.

The New Spirit (Donald Duck), 1985, Screenprint

In some ways he also made an autobiographical catalogue of his own life with his Time Capsules series in 1975. In this, he put together 612 cardboard boxes filled with commonplace items from his everyday life - such as press clippings, business cards and taxi receipts. The still mostly untouched boxes belong to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

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