The Case For Andy Warhol | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


[MUSIC PLAYING] NARRATOR: So you’ve
heard of Andy Warhol and you know he did the
soup cans and the portraits. But today, I want to tell
you why his work really is interesting and worth
your consideration. Here’s the case for Andy Warhol. You know him to look like this. But Andrew Warhola
was born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian immigrant
parents and started out looking like this. He grew up sickly and
spend a lot of time at home drawing with his mom. But he eventually
escaped to New York, after graduating from
Carnegie Tech in 1949. He changed his name and
quickly became a success as a commercial illustrator. He developed a
signature technique that allowed him to trace
and copy images and create a delicate blotted line. It was an early instance of
his affinity for automation or finding other people
or processes that do the work for and with him. He was determined to make it in
the field of so-called fine art and started shopping
for a way in. Instead of making art
for advertisements, he started making
advertisements as art, choosing subject matter
that would find traction with the emerging
field of pop art. He made paintings of Coca
Cola; S&H green stamps; and, of course,
Campbell’s soup cans. He saw these things
as a common language, saying what’s great about this
country is that America started the tradition where the richest
consumers by essentially the same things as the poorest. And it wasn’t about the
individual things so much as the sheer
abundance of things, which reflected the spread of
mass manufacturing and growing postwar American
consumer culture. Warhol started out
using rubber stamps and stencils to make
these paintings. But soon landed
on silk screening as a way to speed things up. He created his
well-known factory and set to work with
assistants, rolling out product after product, displaying them
in warehouse-like arrangements. He was also interested in
products of the human variety and started making
paintings of celebrities, reproducing images from
publicity stills, newspapers, and magazines, making shrew
commentary on the celebrity as commodity. There are number of subjects
that recur Warhol’s work, shoes, products, money,
celebrities, rich people, disaster, death, himself; shoes,
products, money, celebrities, rich people, disaster,
death, himself. But these weren’t just
Warhol’s obsessions. They are deeply reflective
of the culture of the time. If you ascribed to the theory
that the 20th century was the American century,
then Warhol’s work takes on even more importance. His work charts the
development of our obsession with fame and questions the
growing commercialization and uniformity of most
areas of American life. Warhol was an extremely
astute businessperson, who formed his first
corporate entity, Andy Warhol Enterprises, in 1957. And he never really
stopped working for hire. He made thousands of
commissioned portraits, the first of which was this one
of art collector Ethel Scull, based on photos taken
by a machine or rather a photo booth. By the 1970s,
commissioned portraits were a solid chunk
of Warhol’s income. Anyone could have their
portrait made for $25,000, with additional canvases
available at discounted rates. Along with his services,
Warhol was also keen to trade on his
own image, creating numerous self-portraits
throughout his career and offering himself
up for endorsements. And, of course,
Warhol was not just an artist, but also a
filmmaker, band manager, magazine publisher,
and TV producer, who fearlessly explored
and embraced new media. From the 1950s until his
untimely death in 1987, Warhol was a shape shifter,
always open to the new, always innovating, and
always reflecting the time. Like Jay Z, but far
earlier, he understood that to be an artist
in a market economy meant not being a businessman,
but being a business, man. And he turned himself into
a globally recognized brand. People debate whether
Warhol defined an ad-driven, factory-made
culture or was defined by it. But his work remains important
because what mattered to Warhol proved prophetic. People called him a sellout. But by laying bare the
relationship between commerce and art, Warhol nullified
the very idea of a sellout. And in the process
made possible the work Jeff Koons, Shepard Fairey, and
so many contemporary artists. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Dereck Turner

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