When he moved to the Big Apple in 1949, Andy Warhol was in tune with the sentiment of the song “New York, New York” and the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
The child of Eastern European immigrants, Warhol (1928-1987) grew up in Pittsburgh during the deprivation of the Great Depression and World War II, studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and came to New York City as a commercial artist. He was much in demand during the 1950s, designing everything from shoe ads for Tiffany’s to album covers for jazz artists.
Between 1959 and 1961, Warhol crossed the border from commercial to fine art without leaving the commercial behind. One early step in this direction involved the artist’s rendering of a greatly enlarged version of the sort of black and white advertisement common in newspapers of the day. The painting on canvas Before and After (1960), replicated the sort of nose job ads for plastic surgeons one might find on cheap newsprint. Warhol joined a small band of rising avant-garde painters in a movement called Pop Art, which sought to place the objects of everyday life in a context where they could be considered as art. It was in part a reaction against the increasingly difficult-to-grasp drift of abstract art. As Warhol said, “The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second – comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles – all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried hard not to notice.”
Of all the important Pop artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol was the one who became a superstar – perhaps the last visual artist to reach the summit of celebrity status. Warhol turned his life and environment into an ongoing Pop Art performance. Perhaps because he actually had been a successful commercial artist, he had a better understanding of how to reach a mass audience than his contemporaries in the art scene.
Interest in Warhol hasn’t diminished. An exhibition called “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” was on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Jan. 3 and from there will travel to museums in Fort Worth, Brooklyn and Baltimore. And if anything, the commercial aspect of Warhol has only grown more profitable in death.
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, established after the artist’s death, holds the branding rights for Warhol merchandising. As long as a proposed product “enhances Warhol’s legacy” and the Foundation approves the merchandise, you can slap Andy’s image or designs all over your product. Thousands of licensed products have hit the market in the last decade. Licensing fees this fiscal year alone totaled $2.5 million. Clothing embellished with Warhol’s signature flower print enhances a big product line of dresses, swimwear, beach towels and bags from the Diane von Furstenberg label. Von Furstenberg, who palled around with Warhol, was the subject of a series of portraits by the artist.
Other licensed products include glassware, chocolates, neckties, sporting goods and sportswear, a line of high-end perfume by New York based fragrance company Bond No. 9, watches, jewelry and rugs. Although condoms (marketed in Japan) are licensed, cigarettes are taboo and the Foundation rejected a proposed line of smokes.
The market for Andy Warhol is one of extremes and almost anyone can enter. For just over $200 you can own a bottle of perfume featuring Warhol’s Money series imagery on the bottle. Contrast that with Sotheby’s (New York) Nov. 11 sale price of $43 million for Warhol’s 1962 silk-screen ink and pencil on canvas painting of dollar bills, 200 One Dollar Bills, which well exceeded its $8-$12 million reserve. The sale became the second-highest price at auction for the late artist.
What explains the soaring interest in Warhol? Referencing his commercial background provides some insight. The objective of a commercial artist is to create an image that will sell the product. Warhol made his art by taking everyday recognizable objects and, guided by the objectives of advertising design, created portraits of products with which everyone was familiar. Borrowing images that were already out there, a soup can or a Brillo pad, he kept the message simple and embellished it with color. He could have been thinking “portrait of a soup can” when he painted the Campbell’s label. From Mao to Marilyn to Liz, he provided flat images, stylized them with bright color, often repeating them as they were rows of products on a store shelf, and rarely strayed from the formula. An audience responded to its simplicity and were taken with his straight forward approach. Nothing complicated there. In perhaps the best use of today’s popular expression: It is what it is.
Warhol’s enormous body of work and continued interest is evident at auction. To date, well over 12,000 works have appeared at auction houses throughout the world. Works on paper including drawing and watercolor, paintings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, tapestries and photography attest to the artist’s prolific career. Recent examples are many. A drawing-watercolor of three steak-knives in black and white and gray, titled Knives (circa 1981/82), sold in Milan in October for $108,187 (hammer).
In an unusual departure from everyday objects with a brand name , a sweet rendering of a cat, done in drawing/watercolor with India Ink, titled Sam (not dated) sold in Mexico in October for a mere $918 (hammer), suggesting that with Warhol art, your buck goes further with a brand name.
A sculpture with silkscreen ink on plywood measuring 27 by 24 by 19 inches titled Kellogg’s Cornflakes (Los Angeles Type), sold at Sotheby’s (New York) in May for $400,000 (hammer). The sculpture was from a series of 100 that the artist created in 1970 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to commemorate the inaugural of its contemporary galleries. The museum retained 57 of the Kellogg boxes in its permanent collection. A signed Deutsche Mark, categorized under sculpture and included in an auction in Paris in March, fetched $1,552 (hammer), indicating that your dollar goes further with the artist’s signature on it.
Looking at Warhol’s legacy, soup cans, Coke bottles and all, comparisons can be made to classic still life compositions. After all, what is a soup can and a Coke bottle but an everyday household object painted from life for posterity.
Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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