Andy Warhol, the American painter, printmaker, illustrator, and filmmaker was born in Pittsburgh on August 6, 1928, shortly afterwards settling in New York. The only son of an immigrant, Czech parents, Andy finished high school and went on to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, graduating in 1949 with hopes of becoming an art teacher in the public schools. While in Pittsburgh, he worked for a department store arranging window displays and often was asked to simply look for ideas in fashion magazines. While recognizing the job as a waste of time, he recalls later that the fashion magazines “gave me a sense of style and other career opportunities.” Upon graduating, Warhol moved to New York and began his artistic career as a commercial artist and illustrator for magazines and newspapers.
Although extremely shy and clad in old jeans and sneakers, Warhol attempted to intermingle with anyone at all who might be able to assist him in the art world. His portfolio secure in a brown paper bag, Warhol introduced himself and showed his work to anyone that could help him out. Eventually, he got a job with Glamour magazine, doing illustrations for an article called “Success is a Job in New York,” along with doing a spread showing women’s shoes. Proving his reliability and skills, he acquired other such jobs, illustrating ads for Harpers Bazaar, Miller’s Shoes, contributing to other large corporate image-building campaigns, doing designs for the Upjohn Company, the National Broadcasting Company and others.
In these early drawings, Warhol used a device that would prove beneficial throughout his commercial art period of the 1950’s-a tentative, blotted ink line produced by a simple monotype process. First, he drew in black ink on glazed, nonabsorbent paper.
Then he would press the design against an absorbent sheet. As droplets of ink spread, gaps in the line filled in-or didn’t, in which case they created a look of spontaneity. Warhol mastered the thighs method, and art directors of the 1950’s found in adaptable to nearly any purpose. This method functioned provided him with a hand-scale equivalent of a printing press, showing his interest in mechanical reproduction that dominates much of his future work.
Such techniques used for almost all of his works derived from his beginning in the commercial arts. His pattern of aesthetic and artistic innovation, to “expect the unexpected,” began with his advertising art in the 1950’s. Much of his future subject matter can be placed in the realm of such common, everyday objects, that were focused on in these early times. Nearly all of Warhol’s works relate in one way or another to the commercially mass-produced machine product. Hence, Warhol’s future artwork and techniques were greatly influenced by his rather humble beginnings.
Although Warhol did receive recognition for much of his commercial illustrations during those times, he was constantly pursuing another career as well-that of a serious artist. Unfortunately, Warhol was not so successful at first in obtain this goal. His delicate ink drawings of shoes and cupids, among various others, had no place in a decade dominated by such heroic artists as William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Warhol And Pop Art
Pop Art emerged in the US in the early 1960’s, at first completely unacknowledged. During it’s beginning, Pop Art was often seen as an insult to the roles of such artists as Pollock and de Kooning, who were leading a revival of Abstract Expressionist, “an abrupt and conspicuous dialectical reaction to a great wave of abstraction,” at mid-century.
Emerging with considerable fanfare, mainly condemnation, but by 1963-64, it suddenly began being extensively exhibited, published, and consumed as a cultural phenomenon By the early 60’s, Warhol became determined to establish himself as a serious painter, as well as to gain the respect of such famous artists of the time such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose work he had recently come to know and admire. He began by painting a series of pictures based on crude advertisements and on images from comic strips.
These first such works, such as ‘Saturday’s Popeye’(1960) and ‘Water Heater”(1960), were loosely painted in a “mock-expressive” style that mocked the gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, and are among the first examples of what came to be known as Pop Art. Warhol’s works during the early 60’s are among those for which he is best known for. He reproduced advertisements and cartoons, as well as such familiar household items as telephones and soup cans, often painting one image repeatedly in a grid design.
Many of these works, such as his pictures of dollar bills and soup cans, as in ‘Cambell’s Soup Cans 200”(1962), show many ideas underlying advertising, as well as showing his interest in techniques that enabled multiplication of an image, such as silk-screen printing, techniques that dominated much of his work. Through these works Warhol gained his much desired recognition, becoming an instant celebrity, having gone from respected commercial illustrator to controversial and influential artist. Such Pop Art images as Warhol’s soup cans and Lichtenstein’s comic book panels jumped from the vast American consumer culture into the realm of high artistic and aesthetic recognition. It is not known whether Lichtenstein or Warhol was the first to displace commercial images from the media to modernist painting, but Warhol, of all the founding Pop artists, first and foremost, consistently “hewed to the canons of Pop technique and iconography.”
These first Pop works, in their intentional exclusion of all conventional signs of personality, in their obvious rejection of innovation and their blatant vulgarity, were somewhat brutal and shocking, designed with the intention of offending an audience “accustomed to thinking of art as an intimate medium for conveying emotion.” Warhol further extended these concerns by using techniques that gave his images a printed appearance, using stencils, rubber stamps, and hand-cut silkscreens, along with in his choice of the subject matter.
He used the shocking images of tabloids, as in ‘129 Die in Jet’ to money, in a series of screen-printed paintings representing rows of dollar bills, and to the products of consumer society, including Coca-Cola bottles and tins of Cambell’s Soup. Thus, the once struggling commercial illustrator transformed into one of the most recognized and influential artists of the century, considered the “progenitor of American Pop Art.”
Death And Disaster
In the summer of 1962, Warhol’s friend Henry Geldzahler laid out a copy the Daily News while the two were having lunch. On the cover, the headline was “129 Die in Jet.” According to Warhol, that is what began a series of paintings depicting rather gruesome images of human death and disaster, with subjects ranging from the personal focus of individual suicide, the banality of everyday disaster, death by legal execution, to the historical death of political assassination, culminating with the most destructive instrument the world has ever known-the atom bomb. Together, these works are among the most shocking and disturbing works of art the world has ever known.
In most of these works, Warhol displays death as an ever-present subject. His first silkscreened death and disaster paintings were of suicides and especially gruesome car crashes, such as in ‘Ambulance Disaster” and “Saturday Disaster.” the power and suffering shown in the images stunning viewers. Like the contaminated canned food shown in “Tunafish Disaster,” these images appear to represent a breach of faith in the products of the Industrial Revolution by showing consumes products embraced by the population that backfire and cause death. Warhol retained the images from clippings of newspapers, magazines, and photographs, altering them only slightly, as was his norm, to show the images as they were, everyday occurrences the public accepts yet forgets, forcing the viewer to take them at face value.
They portray “A stark, disabused, pessimistic vision of American life, produced from the knowing rearrangement of pulp materials by an artist who did not opt for the easier paths of irony or condescension.” Among the most iconic Death and Disaster images in the “Electric Chair.”(1963) According to Warhol, his replication of this image, both within the single composition and from painting to painting, was intended to “empty” the image of it’s meaning. The electric chair is shown from the front, fully visible, showing a sign reading “SILENCE,” the sign exclamating the emptiness of the execution chamber. The image, the chamber empty , showing only the sign, represents death as an absence and complete silence, a complete void. This notion was characteristic of Warhol, who once said “I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish and everything could just keep going the way it was, only you just wouldn’t be there,” and who often stated that he wanted a blank tombstone when he died.
Many wonder why Warhol chose such imagery to focus on, and he himself gives little reason. For some of these works, in which he shows images repeated relatively unchanged, he was attempting to lessen the shock of the viewer, recognizing such events for their face value, as everyday occurrences. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have and effect.” As in the “Jackies,” images of the recently assassinated President Kennedy’s grieving widow, were repeated to reinforce the obsessive ways that our thoughts keep returning to a tragedy, and “stress the flash of fame these little known(suicides) victims achieve in death. This can be said to be consistent with Warhols claim that everyone “will be famous for 15 minutes.”
In this, does he mean by tragedy? Others claim the initial context for these subjects was journalistic- as an artist trained in drawing and pictorial design, he was obviously predisposed to consider the front page of the news and other media items in visual , artistic terms-as a “media junkie” who continually pursued and collected printed matter, he was drawn into a network of “sensationalized intimacies with the protagonists of the news.” Regardless, there is a tie between these images and his celebrity portraits. Warhol took up the theme of suicide shortly after his first meditations on Marilyn Monroe’s death. While doing those works, he said to have realized that “everything I was doing must have been death.”
Thus, the idea of death was not a new one for him, and thereby his choice of subject matter may not have been completely random. Throughout the Death and Disaster paintings, Warhol makes use of background color to serve various functions.
Mostly, throughout the series, he avoids the use of primary colors, using mainly secondaries, such as oranges, lavenders, and pinks, the types of colors “you would expect to find in a wallpaper store.” His use of background color in the Death and Disaster paintings is mostly extrinsic to the content of the images. In some, such as “Lavender Disaster,” the background color seems to intensify the effect of alienation created by the realism of the visual content. In others, such as “Atomic Bomb,” the red-orange color serves a supporting role.
The images Warhol selected for these paintings were gruesome, though he showed again his brilliant eye for such images so effective in shocking the viewer. “With an eye for the eccentricity of an individual event, Warhol’s paintings capture the unpredictable choreography of death.” Using a broad range of images, from car crashes, suicides, burn victims, funerals, riots, to the culmination with the atomic bomb, Warhol succeeded in giving the viewer what one expected of Warhol; to expect the unexpected.
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