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A bluffer's guide to Andy Warhol

Brush-up on your knowledge of the bewigged pop-art pioneer

Warhol: two syllables that conjure up images of rock 'n' roll debauchery, pop art smashing the mainstream, and everything being sprayed silver. The problem is, in the half-century or so since his provocative art made critics reach for the smelling salts, good old Andy has become so ubiquitous that some half-remembered murmurings from GCSE Art about the soup cans and Marilyn Diptych (1962) just won't cut it anymore. No bother, amateur art freaks! With this bare-bones guide, you can wing it through M Woods' Contact exhibition with the panache and superiority complex of the man himself.

Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Even without being accompanied by a made-up you-go-girl quote on Instagram, this is obvious. Don't be obvious.

Childhood (plus Freudian stuff)

warhol childhood
L-R: Andy Warhol as a nipper; baby Andy with his mum Julia and older brother; a child's drawing ostensibly by Warhol (that is therefore a million times more valuable than the average kid's scribbling)

Born in 1928 to immigrants from the former Austrio-Hungarian empire, Warhol spent his childhood in Pittsburgh as part of a large Byzantine Catholic family. His infamous hypochondria has been attributed by many to his contraction of Syndenham's chorea, also known as St. Vitus' Dance, during the third grade. Frequently bedridden, Warhol drew compulsively, formed a bond with his mother that persisted throughout adulthood until her death (he even used her handwriting for many of his early commercial illustrations) and hoarded a plethora of collectible photos of movie stars that he stuck up around his bed.

We're not just hinting at the importance of this in terms of wee Andy's artistic development; he stated himself that these childhood obsessions were incredibly formative in terms of his later persona and artistic development.

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He also owned this rather natty signed picture of Shirley Temple


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A Warhol commercial fashion spread, showing his trademark sketching style, blotted-line technique and sense of brevity and whimsy.

After studying commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and graduating in 1949, our protagonist moved to the Big Apple where he began a career in magazine illustration and advertising. The dying days of the 1940s also saw Warhol yankify his name, dropping the 'a' from Warhola to get something less obviously Eastern European (and presumably more commercially viable).

Because of his unique illustration methods and witty, whimsical approach Warhol soon became one of the most successful commercial artists in New York. His sketchy drawings were lively and produced in a deliberately imperfect, blotted-ink style, making them ideal for advertisements, record covers and fashion spreads. Warhol later wrote (in his 1980 book POPism) of his approach to mistakes that 'when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something'.

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L-R: Appropriately, the very first piece Warhol ever published, for Glamour magazine; a quirky cat shoe drawn in typical smudgy fashion


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L-R: Warhol in his studio; one of the infamous soup cans, which Warhol claimed to eat every day for lunch

Now, here comes the Andy we all know and love – the slightly sinister-looking, quip-making, performative mid-century icon! As he moved out of the sphere of illustration into fine art, Warhol produced pieces like a madman, drawing on his fascination with American icons, commercialism and consumerism. By 1962, he had held major gallery exhibitions on both the East and West coasts, as one of the most zeitgeist-y proponents of the brand spanking new pop art racket, and not everyone was fully on board.

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L-R: Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962); 200 One-Dollar Bills (1962)

Despite the fact that the works exhibited included Marilyn Diptych, 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, Green Coca-Cola Bottles and 200 One Dollar Bills (now to be found on the walls of a university fresher near you!), po-faced high-faultin' critics were scandalized by Warhol's obsession with market culture and rejection of traditional artistic principles, such as metaphor, hidden meanings, and not churning out a massive pile of nearly-identical soup cans and getting lauded as an innovator for it.

Naturally, the dead-pan and ironic Warhol played along with this, becoming a media sensation in the process. He responded to claims that his art was superficial and facile by supporting them, deeming everything meant by the art to be visible on the surface. Using assistants to confuse further the definition of what counts as art and the artist, he spent much of the '60s producing work exploring the concept of the American icon, in all its egalitarian, violent and aspirational glory: celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor, atom bomb explosions, electric chairs, household paraphernalia.

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Eight Elvises (1963)

One of the primary techniques Warhol used was silkscreen painting: a printing technique where ink is forced through a screen to make an image, using a stencil to block out areas that are not to be filled in. Because of the easily replicable nature of images produced using this technique, Warhol was able not only to produce similar or identical pieces more easily but to blur further the line between fine art and populist, commercial image production.

big elctric chair
Big Electric Chair (1967)

Another crucial moment in Warhol's ascendancy was 1964's show at the Stable in New York, an installation based around the concept of a small supermarket and consisting of around four-hundred sculptures of branded household items, including Heinz ketchup, Kellogg's cornflakes and the now iconic Brillo soap pads.

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L-R: Warhol, ostensibly shopping like a normal human; some of the Brillo sculptures

Warhol's 1966 collaboration with engineer Billy Klüver, the ethereal Silver Clouds, used floating silver balloons made from heat-sealed metallicised plastic film, explored the possibilities of a new material whilst deconstructing the divide between audience and art to make them into participants. The clouds, filled with helium, bounced and floated around the gallery space on air currents and can be seen at the M Woods' show,

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Silver Clouds (1966) – we can only aspire to be cool enough to wear sunglasses indoors

The Factory

Warhol and associates showing off their haircuts at the Factory

Bedecked in tin-foil and metallic paint (silver, obviously), Warhol's infamous studio was established in the '60s and became not just a space for production, as the gleefully ironic name suggests, but a meeting point for the artist's clique of bohemian friends and hangers-on, such as The Velvet Underground, Nico, transgender pioneers Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn and Edie Sedgwick. Hopped up on amphetamines, these Warhol-described 'Superstars' appeared in much of the artist's work and came to define much of what we now consider New York counterculture. The Screen Tests, which can be seen at M Woods, are a collection of stark, stationary film portraits featuring unbroken and silent shots of Factory regulars. Warhol also made a series of consciously obscure experimental films, which were often explicitly sexual in nature – one of these, Kiss [VPN required], can be seen at the exhibition and shows various couples (both hetero- and homosexual) slurping at each other for three-and-a-half minutes apiece.


Edie Sedgwick as part of the Screen Tests

In 1968, peripheral Factory scenester Valerie Solanas (the one and only member of her radical feminist 'group', the Society for Cutting Up Men or S.C.U.M.), shot and nearly killed Warhol at his studio. After the event (which included Warhol having to have his chest cavity opened and his heart massaged to restart it), Solanas was declared schizophrenic and the Factory scene, which presumably had turned into a bit of a downer, dribbled out to give way to a far less hedonistic period of Warhol's work.

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Ouch. Commiserations Andy!


Warhol, perhaps understandably p*ssed off and disillusioned with the zeitgeist of the '60s after it ended with him dying and then having to be resuscitated, entered into a more entrepreneurial period of work during the '70s, making portrait commissions of some of the most prominent figures of the decade (often in multiple colourways). Based on Polaroid photographs of his subjects, these pieces combined Warhol's favourite screen-printing technique with garish colours for a layered, floating effect. He also liked to espouse his business theory, claiming that great art meant making stacks of cash (eat your heart out, Charles Saatchi), and did actually make stacks of cash, so we're not going to fault him for 'selling out'.

liza mao

L-R: Liza Minelli (1979); Mao Zedong (1973)


Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the financial mantra of the decade, Warhol used his friendship with emerging talent in the Neo-Expressionist and Transavantgarde movements to propel his work into the art market. Although some critics praised his ability to reflect the superficiality of market-capital obsessed American culture back on itself, others accused his portrait series of having no awareness of the significance of its subjects, branding it shallow and overtly cynical.

However, his 'fright wig' self-portraits, in lurid colours, revelled in their deliberate grotesquerie to become iconic. Wearing a tangle of Halloween hair and glaring at the camera, Warhol's unflattering screen-prints endure; perhaps their ability to self-commodify (NB: pretentious theory ahead!) an artist who had partially made his name by the process of commodification has given them a kind of performative gravitas. We shall never know!

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Self-Portrait, 1986

Warhol died after routine gallbladder surgery on February 22, 1987, and was buried, appropriately, wearing one of his trademark wigs and sunglasses and alongside a bottle of Estée Lauder Beautiful. Viva Andy!

And now, for some useless trivia to bore/impress people who haven't read this

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Warhol in the Factory, 1964. Photograph: Billy Name

Despite his oft-repeated claims of performance-art virginity, some of his boyfriends claimed that Warhol wasn't as sexless as he intended people to think. In enthusiastic terms. Ooh er.

By whacking a chap called Allen Midgette in what could basically be deemed Andy-Warhol-drag, he sent an actor to impersonate him on a lecture tour – and for some time at least, got away with it. Apparently an A+ disguise can be easy easy as a silver wig and sunglasses.

Speaking of wigs, Warhol used to wear them on a daily basis and owned around 40. He'd wear the silver-blonde mops to the hairdresser, have it cut and styled, then swap to a longer one in a week or two to simulate growth. When, in 1985, a girl swiped a wig off his head, the artist wrote the following in his diary: 'I don't know what held me back from pushing her over the balcony.'

Throughout his career, Warhol liked to hoard odd little collectibles and would store his collections of ephemera (read: crap) in boxes that, when full, would be taped and dated. His friends referred to these boxes as 'Andy's Stuff' and they can be examined at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

According to a former employee, 'Andy worked out. He went to the gym and lifted weights.' Presumably whilst in full regalia.

Although commonly considered an anti-social habit, Warhol liked to indulge his introversion and eat alone, even planning to open a chain of restaurants for 'lonely people' called ANDY-MATS’.

For something a little sweeter, let's consider that the artist who constructed a deliberately aloof persona, went by the nickname Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella, because of his noted coldness) and once claimed that 'frigid people always make it' had a soft and fluffy side. On the sly, and away from fans and critics and the glitz of the art world, Warhol apparently volunteered in a soup kitchen every Saturday. All together now: awwwww.

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