Ode to Andy Warhol
I realized I wanted to be an artist when I was in kindergarten. We had studied Van Gogh, specifically his famous yellow painting of sunflowers and then we made our own versions of the still-life in class. Unbeknownst to us students though, our art was being surveyed and handpicked for display in the local Starbucks and to my utter shock it was my painting that was chosen for display. My mom took me to see it once it was installed and, while beaming with pride, she put me up on a chair so that she could take my picture with my painting. I was shown at an early age that art was meant to be seen, that what I made could be of some worth to others. In the vaguest sense, my six year old self was introduced to Marcel Duchamp’s, the great modern artist, idea that a piece of art is not yet completed until its audience interacts with it.
It wasn’t long after until the trappings of an artist’s mind befell my own; I was staying late in art class, begging to be taken to the museum, drawing until my mom insisted I go to bed, and, namely, discovering other artists. Though I didn’t discover Andy Warhol in full until I was sixteen, it was Pop artist who inspired the scoop of my artistic dreams. And it was at a local hipster hangout where I first found access to Warhol’s work in the iconic yellow of the peel-able banana on the cover of the Velvet Underground’s 1967, earth-shattering first album. I gravitated towards the album with only a foggy understanding of its majesty. I tried in vain to remember when or where I had first heard of the banana album, but as I’ve discovered about Warhol and his work, there is no official introduction, similar in some ways to Jesus in nearly limitless name/face recognition.
I remembered I fibbed to the the long-haired, ageless cashier when he asked if I was a big fan of the band, in truth I bought the vinyl because of that banana and the myth that lay beyond the fruit; Warhol’s awesome celebrity and a prolific body of work. Back home, I unsheathed the album from its plastic and dropped the needle on my cheap little record player. I was hypnotized by the images on the inside of the cover of Warhol posed candidly in his famous white wig and dark-framed glasses alongside Lou Reed and the rest of the band. They looked aloof and beautiful like Catholic icons, most of all Warhol, embodying the heights that I wanted to reach in my own work and career.
As I got older, I grew more serious about my being an artist. So I began to frequent the local art museum, outfitted far past any expectations of it, in my hometown of Kansas City, an obscure little city on the border of Missouri and Kansas where culture goes to die. There was one room in particular that I liked to loiter in, in a building that housed treasures of the post-modern variety where a few pieces by Roy Lichtenstein were hung with one of Donald Judd’s famous Stacks in the corner. The room, like the rest of the museum, was usually empty save for a few curious out-of-towners, though they always stopped in front of one particular canvas, a small one, approximately 1’8” by 1’4” inches, hung on the wall opposite a Wayne Thiebaud. It featured an image of a Campbell Soup can and I suspected one day as a fanny-packed woman nodded along to her husband that he was telling her that this was by Andy Warhol and that there was no need for the plaque beside the modest canvas because of Warhol’s hardworking legacy.
It’s harder to say if the couple understood that the soup can, divorced from its original associations with grilled cheeses and lunch time, was a symbol of consumerism and thus Americana. Or if they understood that Warhol’s method was to take a representational and highly recognizable object and transform it into pure symbolism, into a container for everything besides soup in this particular case. That the Campbell soup can represents Warhol’s most impressive feats as an artist: the complete permeation of our culture achieved through his sardonically-tuned, iconoclasm of fine art standards and relentless self-documentation. And it is with certainty that he will no sooner be forgotten than if the world ended tomorrow. All the proof of this is in the fact that a couple from the far outreaches of the midwest recognized a piece by the artist that desired such cultural recognition, so much so that in 1985 he attempted to infiltrate the mainstream by guest starring on an episode of ‘Love Boat’.
I moved to New York the first chance I got, making the artist’s pilgrimage to the city as so many, including Warhol, have made before myself. My first stop was the Museum of Modern Art, seeking the rest of those soup cans and inspiration for my own work. The room was better lit than the gallery back home and there was the regular mob of tourists mingling in front of the 32 canvases of chicken noodle, tomato and vegetable soup cans. I waited until the crowd thinned and then took my turn in front. It looked exactly how it did in the photos the MoMA had posted of it online. In a Warholian irony his work had become the ideal advertisement for the museum, provoking the potential single contextual meaning of the piece to multiple, having been harnessed and commodified by our contemporary art world.
It wasn’t until several years at art school that I considered the gravity of Warhol’s decision to turn to the misfit of the art world at the time, Pop art, when entering his initial entry into the world of fine art with Campbell Soup Cans. But in the same way it was foundational as Warhol’s first, as it established his personally detached style that was and is aggravating to some. It also established the boundary between the rest of the world and Warhol’s personal life. A boundary that was oft misunderstood as a true expression of who the artist was, in a way dehumanizing Warhol to his audience. His style no less than exposed his supernatural ability to ordain the ordinary as extraordinary, the choice of the Campbell soup can as subject seems almost obvious at this point, only because it so perfectly symbolizes the culture Warhol was observing, his commentary delivered through the technique of the medium.
It was also at art school where I discovered that Warhol’s sacrilegious merging of art and capitalism seared like a hot knife in the sides of art historians. They were unappreciative, it seemed, of Warhol’s mechanization of capitalism, implemented into his practice as an artist, a move that was and remains decidedly polarizing. They shunned him for his preciously collected fame and overlooked the fact that Warhol, like any other artist, was a circumstance of his time just as Di Vinci and his contributions to the fine art world. While Di Vinci expressed his innovative genius through masterful compositions, draftsmanship and Neoplatonic theory, Warhol expressed his own genius through the acquisition of commercial mediums, consumer products and the commodification of himself.
My peers and I first encountered Warhol, detached from humanity and reality, in movies. Movies where caricatures made fun of his speech patterns and queerness. Movies where digestible facts about his art clouded the view of his controversial pieces. For us, Warhol was a phenomenon that happened outside of the classroom, his reputation of fame eclipsing his artistic one. As my generation assumes omnipotence over pop culture, we recognize in Warhol our own reverence of celebrity and our own aching to ascend out of obscurity. Rather a canvas, our preferred medium is an Instagram account dedicated to images of a sole person. In our early teens it was Alex Turner and now maybe it’s Alexa Demi, but our devotion and output has not wavered. And like Warhol, we all personally connect to our chosen idol expressed through the subtleties of our curation.
Warhol playing Andy Warhol, running his image in some ways like a corporation, but also transforming himself into art itself has become a norm in our society. We craft our personas online as Warhol did through commercials and television appearances (and sometimes out in the streets of New York) we disseminate our image or the image of another, of something in the repetition of our craft, editing and organizing our masterpieces on our grids. Warhol was a product of his Factory, a well crafted assemblage of vague statements and affected a-sexuality, a cross that my generation does not have to bear as heavily allowing us the opportunity to be more authentic in our personas. It is Warhol who we have to thank for braving and indulging in the sphere of visibility, creating the space for those of us that are a little left of center so to speak.
Warhol relinquished his own anonymity for personal desires, of course, but also for the sake of art, making his blasé act his most ironic work ever. He fully embraced the vague division between art and life and 35 years after the artist’s death it is hard to say which came first the white wig and signature dark-framed glasses or the polychromatic portraits of modern day idols. But as Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, from 1964, goes up for auction at Christie’s with a 200 million dollar asking price, we can consider Marilyn Monroe’s never-to-be-forgotten portrait isolated in a field of teal wherein Warhol transformed the starlet’s mask-like beauty and grin into a modern day Mona Lisa. If the painting sells it would be one of the most expensive paintings from the 20th century sold at auction and between that, being the foremost influencer on culture still to this day postmortem and inspiring a young artist like myself along with the rest of my generation; Andy Warhol stands to never be forgotten.
Edited by Elodie Hollant