Andy Warhol: the story of his success
How did Andy Warhol become one of America’s most influential and bankable artists? EDGAR looks at the career of a true artistic great.January 7, 2015
On the evening of November 23, 1961, artist Ted Carey invited the curator and art historian Muriel Latow to his New York home for dinner. The evening’s conversation revolved around their mutual friend, the struggling young commercial artist Andy Warhol, and his seemingly inescapable artistic rut.
Warhol had been invited to the meal by a concerned Carey, but had cancelled, claiming he was “too depressed” to attend. Finally, at the end of the evening, Carey and Latow headed over to visit the artist at home to try and cheer him up. By doing so, they inadvertently changed the course of 20th-century pop culture. As Carey recalled in a 1985 interview:
“So, after dinner we went to Andy's, and he was very depressed. He said, 'I've got to do something new. Muriel, you've got fabulous ideas. Can't you give me an idea?' Muriel said it’ll cost you $50, so Andy wrote out a cheque for $50. She said, 'You've got to find something that's recognisable to almost everybody. Something you see everyday that everybody would recognise. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup...” The next day, he went to the local A&P supermarket, cleaned out their stock of Campbell’s soup cans and got busy in his tiny studio. After some preliminary experimentation, he settled on the silkscreen – a process that fascinated him with its impersonal, mechanised results, perfect to articulate everything he felt about contemporary, industrialised, mass-consumer society.
Andrew Warhol, a shy, geeky, insecure wannabe was replaced by Andy Warhol, the most important U.S. artist of the 1960s.
He began to produce clean, hard-lined portraits of soup cans, in profuse quantities. Seven months later, in July 1962, the Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood launched Warhol’s art career with his debut solo show of soup cans. Gallery director Irving Blum had carefully arranged the series of 32 canvases, each featuring simply a crisp screenprint of a soup can, around the walls of the gallery.
The show opened to public consternation. Yet despite its relative commercial failure (Dennis Hopper paid $100 for a single painting), Blum had shrewdly bought up the entire set for $1,000 – which 24 years later, he would sell to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for $15 million. Fifty years after Blum took a punt on the depressed young artist, Andy Warhol is one of the most collectable artists in the world. In 2007, 20 years after his death, the 1965Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), sold at Christie's, setting the artist’s personal record at $71.7m. And in 2013, Warhol'sSilver Car Crash (Double Disaster) went one better, selling for an eye-watering $105.4 million.
He was always taking risks, shifting his career entirely from one thing to another. Fashion, parties, art – all are synonymous with Warhol
Numerous other works, especially from his mid-60s heyday, continue to grab astronomical sums at auctions and private sales around the world, with no self-respecting contemporary art museum or collector now complete without at least one Warhol in their collection. And across the art world and the wider world of contemporary culture, Warhol’s influence remains vivid, well into the 21st century.
But why is he so popular still? "He is the greatest American artist of the second half of the 20th century." Daniel Blau, the Munich-based dealer who has been trading Warhols for decades, says adamantly. “He was always taking risks, shifting his career entirely from one thing to another. Fashion, parties, art – all these things are synonymous with Warhol. But still, when it became too easy for him, drawing, painting, using canvas, using paper – he would do something else. And that is sign of a great artist.” The artist had reinvented himself, as a skinny beatnik in a silver wig, monosyllabic, as flat and opaque as his paintings (“They won’t last” he famously said in 1964. “I was using cheap paint”). But behind the vacuous façade, beat the heart of a dedicated, focused, constantly evolving artist.
As his fame and notoriety spread, especially when he turned his attention from the Marilyns, Elvises and Coke bottles of sunny American pop culture to electric chairs, car crashes and race riots in his ‘Death and Disaster’ series, his intent to unflinchingly document contemporary American life as it was, shorn of metaphor, hand-wringing superiority or moralising, became clear. And to many in the art world, this was simply unsupportable.
“Why has Andy’s work endured?” Vincent Fremont is on the line, from his office in New York. De facto Factory manager since 1970, trusted advisor, protégé and colleague of the mercurial artist, Fremont knows, more than most, the circumstances, trends and insider secrets that shaped the artist’s career. “Andy was actually very undervalued in his lifetime. Well, if you look at his work, even after the 1960s, the Maos, Hammer Sickles, Skulls, abstract work like the Shadows, there was a lot of work that people couldn’t understand at the time. But he wasn’t afraid to do what he wanted to do.”
As his career progressed, Warhol became as well-known for his unearthly eerie appearance and public persona, as well as successive series of silkscreened images that took icons of the age and reproduced them in bewildering multiplicity.
Soon, he was experimenting with film, shooting static portraits of anything from an eight-hour study of a sleeping friend (Sleep) to his art dealer Ivan Karp steadily consuming whisky until he collapsed, to the infamous 24-hour fixed portrait of the Empire State Building. The sheer audacity of Warhol’s approach lent his most seemingly mundane works a worrying urgency. The obsessive, focused documentation was simply unsettling in its relentless dissection of the subject. “He always saw the world differently,” remembers Fremont. “He was always trying to break new ground. He opened up the windows to a world that is no longer here. He had that talent to move forward.”
As the 60s lumbered to a close, Warhol had, through his work and eccentric lifestyle, established himself as an American original. After barely surviving an assassination attempt in 1968 at the hands of a deranged ‘fan’, he reinvented himself yet again, as a jet-setting portraitist to the global glitterati and the silent nerd at the centre of New York’s disco scene.
His magazine Interview, meanwhile, originally set up in 1969 in order to keep his former assistant Gerard Malanga busy, was now pioneering a new form of celebrity journalism that suffuses today’s plethora of cheap sleb magazines. Vincent Fremont, who oversaw Warhol’s move into his final decade as the respected elder statesman of the New York art scene, attributes his ongoing relevance to his unyielding curiosity and enthusiasm for pop culture.
"He was totally connected to the culture we live in, like the Dollar Signs – they are beautiful paintings. He totally understood consumerism, he was a consummate shopper himself. But Andy understood the concept of branding even before that became commonplace. He understood the importance of his name, he never lost control of it. Besides being a great artist and painter, he reached out to all the branches of the arts, because he loved creativity. He was a conceptual artist, not just a pop artist’.
Since his death in 1987, Warhol’s estate has managed to strategically ensure that the prolific output from across his 25-year career has remained in the public eye. From screenprinted iconography of the era – the soup cans, Coke bottles, Marilyn Monroes, Elvises to the black underbelly of American life, electric chairs, suicides, race riots and car crashes – Warhol’s shrewd eye captured the technicolour world of 1960s America with a dry, emotionless documentary.
His Pop paintings defined the era. What looked, superficially to be vacuous and ephemeral became in his hands arresting, frequently disturbing and invariably compelling.