B orn in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1928, Andy Warhol moved east to New York in his early twenties. There he began work as a commercial illustrator, most successfully for the women’s shoe company, I. Miller.
Perhaps the pivotal moment of his career, though, came in 1960, when he invited a group of friends over to his Lexington Avenue townhouse and asked for opinion on two paintings he’d done of Coca-Cola bottles. One was executed in a loose, brushy style reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists; the other in a cold, sleek manner that looked machine-made.
The group preferred the latter, a decision that had major repercussions for the history of art. Warhol gave up his career as an illustrator around this time to devote himself to being an artist, and the consultation over the Coke paintings suggested the way forward lay in a commercial aesthetic rather than traditional mark-making.
In the 1960s he duly adopted what became his signature technique: the silkscreen. Put simply, this entailed transferring a photographic image onto canvas – and applying paint or ink to it via a squeegee. There tended to be not just one finished canvas but several: Warhol liked to try out a variety of colour combinations on each photo. (He also liked to vary the number of photographs reproduced in each work: sometimes it was only one, sometimes hundreds.)
Shots of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy were the source for some of Warhol’s best-known silkscreens. By the mid-1960s, Warhol was rather a celebrity himself, and he even created a set of intensely coloured self-portraits in silkscreen.
He adapted newspaper imagery of events such as car crashes and race riots, too – as well as, in the case of his Flowers series, a magazine photograph of hibiscus flowers. Here, Warhol managed to bridge the gap between old and new, between past masters and contemporary art. Which is to say, the process of silkscreening was modern and mechanical, but the floral imagery harked back to still-life paintings of centuries gone by.
A fter tireless activity in the 1960s, it’s generally agreed the 1970s was a much quieter decade for Warhol – in part because he was recovering, physically and mentally, from an assassination attempt against him in 1968 (in which he was shot at three times in his studio, The Factory.)
His best-known work from the 1970s is his portraiture: created by taking Polaroid photos of sitters and applying the usual silkscreen technique thereafter. One of his first subjects was the art collector, Kimiko Powers. As the decade went on, other high-society sitters followed, including the Shah of Iran and the oil tycoon, Sid Bass.
Just as engaging was his Ladies and Gentlemen series, of 1975, in which he depicted a host of drag queens from Greenwich Village, wearing expressions that ranged from vulnerable to coquettish. The paint in these works is distributed in extravagant patches, presumably to stress the performative nature of the subjects’ job.
Warhol’s silkscreens are generally marked by their detached, deadpan mood. However, that of the mother-and-daughter duo, Judy Garland and Liza Minelli, from the late 1970s, is atypically personal. Warhol was friends with Minelli, and his affection shines through in the photographic montage he composed on the canvas. It resembles a family album.
As the 1980s dawned, Warhol was experimenting increasingly with abstraction – in series such as Rorschach (inspired by the psychological test, in which one’s perception of inkblots is analysed). Perhaps because of the arrival of a new generation of New York artists – including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, with both of whom he collaborated – Warhol found a new lease of artistic life in the 1980s.
One innovation was his sprinkling of diamond dust on the surface of works, such as Diamond Candy Box. A large series of drawings and paintings of dollar signs, meanwhile, saw Warhol revisit a longstanding theme in his art: money.
Another such theme was religion and death, and there’s an undeniably haunting quality to his works that examine his religious beliefs and the commodification of religious iconography.
Warhol died in 1987, aged 58, from complications following gall bladder surgery. In the aftermath, there was consensus that his best decade had been the 1960s, when he was spearheading the Pop art movement; and that the rest of his career had failed to reach those heights. In recent years, however, opinion has shifted, with acceptance that Warhol’s art evolved in interesting ways in the 1970s and 1980s too.
That was certainly the thesis of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, the vast retrospective staged at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art (from November 2018 to March 2019) and then San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (from May to September 2019).
"The pop art is extraordinary," said the show’s chief curator, Donna De Salvo. "But for me, the most potent stuff is his later work". Warhol, in other words, may have been the king of Pop, but he went on to become much else besides.