Top 10 Things That Made Andy Warhol the Ultimate Artist


Multi-colored images of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor turn the wall into a color copier. We witness an endless repetition of Campbell’s Soup cans like a giant block of stamps. The plump face of Mao Zedong, in high-contrast hues, stares at us with a Mona Lisa smile. And then there’s that platinum wig. Scratch any of those Andy Warhol surfaces, and you discover more surfaces than meet the pop art eye.

Part of the whole Warhol mystique is the mystique itself. The further you dig, the more you learn. The more you learn, the less you understand. The following are ten examples that further blur the line between the life and art of Andy Warhol.

10. He Saved Everything, Just in Case Art Came Out of It Later


The warehouse in Citizen Kane has nothing on Andy Warhol. The artist saved anything and everything that passed through his studio. We’re talking press clippings, art supplies and materials, posters, audio tapes, photographs, books and magazines, decorative art objects, and, of course, all those wigs.

Exactly how much stuff are we talking about? The Warhol Museum estimates its collection adds up to more than 8,000 cubic feet of material. By the museum’s count, there are more than 500,000 objects. The audio tapes alone top 4,000. Then there are the Time Capsules that Warhol began boxing and sealing in 1974. There are more than 600 of these mini-archives containing photo booth strips, letters, invitations and more. If you could thoroughly inventory 100 objects in a day, you’d spend upwards of 13 years cataloging every last item.

9. The Nose Picker Series


Warhol courted attention right from the start, going back to his college days. Even as a student he knew the value of stirring things up. Sometimes he appeared to stir simply for the sake of stirring.

During his senior year at Carnegie Tech, he thumbed his nose at 1949 convention by sticking his finger in it, pictorially speaking. He submitted his painting, “The Broad Gave Me My Face But I Can Pick My Own Nose” to a juried exhibition. The judges considered the work nothing to sneeze at, and took a pass.

Renamed “Don’t Pick on Me,” the piece gained attention as part of a student show the following year. As with his later works, Warhol created a series of “Nose Pickers.”

8. Momma’s Boy


The Warhola family agrees that the single, most influential person in Warhol’s early life was his mother. Born in Czechoslovakia, Julia Zavacky emigrated to the states when her husband, Ondrej Warhola, sent for her in 1921. As part of her family tradition, Julia introduced her three sons to the arts, including music, dance and graphic disciplines.

At the age of six, Andy contracted chorea, also known as St. Vitus’s Dance. The rare disease of the nervous system confined the child to bed for months. That’s when his mother gave him his first drawing lessons. His brothers further fueled his artistic and pop sense with comic books and Hollywood photos (he cherished his autographed Shirley Temple.)

Credit Julia with giving Warhol his first camera when he was nine. He became fascinated with photography and set up a darkroom in the basement of their home. When he first hit the commercial art scene in New York, he enlisted Julia to provide lettering for several of his projects, always crediting her as “Andy Warhol’s mother.”

7. His Screen Tests


Movies loom large in the Warhol oeuvre. 1963’s Sleep captured boyfriend John Giomo slumbering for over five hours. The 1964 Empire displayed eight, continuous hours of the New York skyscraper in slow motion. He achieved some commercial success with his experimental Chelsea Girls in 1966, co-directed with Paul Morrissey.

Less known are the film portraits Warhol began shooting in 1964, his celluloid equivalent to canvas portraiture. He filmed more than 400 screen tests, most capturing anyone and everyone who hung out and/or hung on his world. Most of those faces remain as good as anonymous, but a few of the better-known subjects include:

Bob Dylan from his big-hair days. He didn’t look exactly bored, and he didn’t look enthusiastic either, but he did look very Dylan.

Salvador Dali, sporting his famous mustache, appeared to be trying to outstare the camera.

Lou Reed, as cool and hip as ever, wore dark shades and swigged constantly from a bottle of Coca-Cola (whether or not it was the real thing is anyone’s guess.)

6. Recording Art


Two record covers designed by Warhol are famous for their simplicity, and infamous for their gimmickry. The debut album of the Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967 sported a peeling banana, and Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones in 1971 came with its own zipper.

His earliest designs for record jackets actually go back to the ’50s. Warhol’s distinctive “blotted line” technique captivated advertisers and magazine editors, and he carried this look over to his album work. Some of the biggest names he designed for include Count Basie, Kenny Burrell, and Thelonious Monk. He even crafted artwork for a collection of readings by playwright Tennessee Williams.

5. Rock Star


According to Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, Warhol became a rock manager when a Broadway producer approached them. The theatrical impresario planned to open a dance club in an abandoned airplane hanger in Queens, and he wanted to involve the celebrity artist. Morrissey suggested they provide their own band, so Warhol went shopping. He caught Lou Reed and company at a Café Bizarre gig and signed on as their manager in late 1965. One thing led to another, including the dance club falling through, but it led to the world’s first peeling album cover.

Nearly 20 years later, Warhol made his first rock video, co-directing the Cars 1984 hit “Hello Again.” Warhol cast himself as the bartender. He attributed his own bumbling appearance to wearing contacts, instead of his usual eyeglasses.

4. His Work with Endangered Species


Reference is seldom made to a series of ten screen prints Warhol created in 1983. The subjects were hardly anything the art world would have expected: African elephant, bald eagle, bighorn ram, black rhinoceros, Grevy’s zebra, giant panda, orangutan, pine barrens tree frog, San Francisco silverspot, and Siberian tiger. After discussing the subject of endangered species with Ronald and Frayda Feldman, Warhol accepted their commission for this project. The work is self-derivative, a sort of Marilyn meets neon style, but the images remain striking and forceful.

3. Playing Hard to Get with Everybody


As accessible as Warhol was, he often gave interviewers a hard time. He was basically the Bob Dylan of graphic arts. The impression he made was a guy playing it hip, cool, and very hard to get. It appeared he loved the attention, but consciously avoided being understood.

In a 1966 interview with Cavalier magazine, Warhol was asked whether his artwork would hold any value for him if he didn’t create it himself. Warhol simply replied, “Oh, I don’t know.” Did he paint to please himself? “It gives me something to do.”

In a filmed session from 1966, Warhol appears garbed in full biker get-up, black, leather jacket, wearing dark sunglasses, coiled up on a stool. Behind him hangs a silk-screened Elvis-as-gunfighter portrait, to his left a Campbell’s Soup canvas. At one point the interviewer starts over, saying, “Let me ask you some questions you can answer.” Warhol softly suggests that the reporter also feeds him responses, saying softly, “Repeat the answers, too.”

Even when interviewed about his thoughts on a pro wrestling show, Warhol offered little beyond vague phrases like, “I’m speechless,” “It’s so exciting, I just don’t know what to say,” and “It’s the best I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” leaving viewers everywhere to wonder if he even bothered to watch the matches.

Here’s an archetypal exchange from a 1981 BBC interview:

Edward Smith: Would you like to see your pictures on as many walls as possible, then?
Andy Warhol: Uh, no, I like them in closets.

In the end, most of those interviews reveal more about the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Mostly, they display how lousy some interviewers really are.

2. He’s Even Given Credit for Things He Didn’t Create


Along with being one of the most photographed and publicized artists of the 20th Century, Warhol’s also probably the most quoted. The majority of his quips come from his book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again.)” It’s a pity he didn’t write it.

Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine for its first 12 years, oversaw the project; the artist’s secretary, Pat Hackett, produced most of the writing. She culled and otherwise crafted the book from interviews she conducted separately with Warhol, as well as those held with Colacello and Warhol associate Brigid Berlin.

Reality struck Colacello hard when the media began covering the artist as if he were the book’s author. According to Colacello, “I was part of a big lie, and while it had lined my pockets, it robbed my ego of any hope of recognition. Pat Hackett probably felt even more ripped off: nine chapters were wholly hers; four were mostly mine; one, ‘The Tingle,’ was Brigid’s, and all three of us had worked on the prologue.”

1. He Even Turned Himself Into Art


The physical image meant everything to Warhol, and that included the artist himself. Did his love for art lead to his zealous self-scrutiny? We could analyze that to death, but there’s no doubt he manipulated how the world saw him.

Warhol became self-conscious of his blotchy skin at an early age. He never liked his nose, either. In the 1950’s he went under the knife to alter the shape of his hooter. He also relied on cosmetics and collagen treatments throughout his life. And then there’s that legendary, trademark wig, brown in back with shades of blonde and silver on the sides and front. He even considered creating a framed edition of his mops as artwork.

The wigs fooled no one. They were so obvious that you knew Warhol knew you knew. They played like a live version of Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” painting. Which is exactly what Warhol wanted all along.

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