Some say that Andy Warhol was born ahead of his time. If he were still alive today, he’d have felt very much at home. Artist, fashion icon, writer, filmmaker... Warhol’s extensive portfolio remains visible to this day. He is worshipped obsessively, but at the same time, loathed by many.
Throughout his life, Warhol has advocated the concept that art should not be unattainable; it should be integrated with the consumption of commodities, making it approachable and (gasp!) affordable to the masses. Those who despise him think otherwise: with mass reproduction and commercialisation by way of silkscreen prints like his Campbell Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe series, Warhol seemed to show that art could be easily duplicated for the sake of consumerism. He was criticised as a lazy, unimaginative artist who followed popular trends instead of pursuing a genuine vision.
Born Andrew Warhola, the fourth child of Slovakian parents Ondrej and Julia, Warhol grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In third grade, Warhol suffered from Sydenham’s chorea, which caused involuntary, sudden movements and therefore resulted in him being confined to bed for several weeks. During this time, he listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars, which he later described as very important to the development of his personality.
OBSESSING OVER APPEARANCES
Warhol was no stranger to cosmetic enhancements, having had his nose reshaped at the age of 29. Stemming from self-consciousness about the redness of his skin due to rosacea (as a child, he was nicknamed “Spot” and “Andy the Red-nosed Warhola”), Warhol indulged in prescription drugs, vitamin supplements and collagen injections to fulfill his aesthetic ideals.
He also began losing his hair and began wearing wigs, which progressively looked wilder and became more silver as he aged. This was reflected through some of his earliest paintings, where nose jobs and wigs were prominently featured. Eventually, Warhol’s disheveled, white-blonde hairstyles became his signature look, as did his leather jackets and dark sunglasses.
In 1968, Warhol survived an attempted murder by radical feminist writer Valeris Solanas, which left deep scars across his torso following intensive surgery. For the rest of his life, he had to wear corsets to support his damaged muscles. At first, Warhol was deeply ashamed to reveal his body, but soon developed a passion for bodybuilding, transferring his obsession with his looks to maintaining a rigorous workout routine instead.
“I JUST DO ART BECAUSE I’M UGLY AND THERE’S NOTHING ELSE FOR ME TO DO.”
In addition to his commercial achievements, Warhol also designed many album covers. One of the most notable covers he did was for The Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which featured an illustration of a banana that could be peeled. The album was lauded as one of the most influential modern rock albums, with “Sunday Morning” being its most well-known track.
In exchange for the rights to use the song “Days of Steam” in his movie Heat, Warhol agreed to design the cover art for The Academy in Peril by John Cale, a former Velvet Underground member.
For The Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers, Warhol incorporated an actual working zipper into the cover design, with perforations around the belt buckle that opened to reveal a sub-cover image of white briefs within. The Warhol-Rolling Stones collaboration finally came to an end after frontman Mick Jagger added his own hand-written titles to the cover art for Love You Live, which angered Warhol.
Before his death on 22 February 1987, Warhol created his final cover art for Aretha Franklin’s 31 studio album, Aretha. In 2016, a silkscreen print of the same artwork sold for $1.05 million USD at Sotheby’s.
During the exhibition Andy Warhol/ Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, Belgian art critic Thierry de Duve shared a befitting description of Warhol: “To desire fame – not the glory of the hero but the glamour of the star – with the intensity and awareness Warhol did, is to desire to be nothing, nothing of the human, the interior, the profound. It is to want to be nothing but image, surface, a bit of light on a screen, a mirror for the fantasies and a magnet for the desires of others – a thing of absolute narcissism.” That said, here are five things you probably didn’t know about Andy Warhol.
1. ANDY WARHOL, THE PROLIFIC DIRECTOR
Throughout his career, Warhol produced and directed as many as 600 films, including Empire, Sleep, The Chelsea Girls, Batman Dracula and Blue Movie, which did well at the box office and garnered positive acclaim from film critics. Known for its controversial unsimulated intimate scenes, Blue Movie was the first adult erotic film to receive wide theatrical release in the United States.
2. ANDY WARHOL, THE KING OF SILKSCREEN
From 1962 to 1984, silkscreen printing became Warhol’s most iconic signature style. Although not a new technique (its roots trace back to Qing and Han dynasties in China), it can be said that Warhol popularized silkscreen, elevating its status from “T-shirt making” to actual works of art, thanks to his clever usage of fluorescent colours to fill in negative space, giving his prints a unique layered effect. As he famously said in an interview with Art News, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”
3. ANDY WARHOL, THE MAGAZINE MAN
Many might not be aware that Interview magazine was founded by Warhol and British journalist John Wilcock in 1969. Nicknamed “The Crystal Ball of Pop”, the magazine is famous for its unedited interviews, a tradition started by Warhol which carries on until this day. In its early conception, copies of Interview were given away for free to Warhol’s in-crowd of celebrities and artists. At his funeral, Warhol’s close friend Paige Powell dropped a copy of Interview into the grave, together with an Interview t-shirt and a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume.
4. ANDY WARHOL, THE ARTIST WITH THE WORLD’S LARGEST MEMORIAL
To commemorate Warhol’s contribution to art, a museum was built in his honour in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born. Housing the largest collection of his artworks and archival materials, the Andy Warhol Museum is the largest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist, and is also the most comprehensive in the world. Originally built in 1911, the museum building features seven floors of gallery and exhibition space, as well as an underground level where the education studio and conservation lab are located.
5. ANDY WARHOL, THE “PROPHET” OF FAME
“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol’s quote accurately predicted the current social media situation, which has brought us (be it to our delight or dismay) YouTubers, TikTokers and influencers, each chasing their 15 minutes of fame. Even before the era of the Internet, Warhol appeared in a documentary film, eating a Burger King Whopper for four minutes and 20 seconds straight, without any context or interaction with the camera. The resemblance with the mukbangers of today is simply uncanny. As he finishes his burger, he stares into space and finally makes eye contact, almost shyly. “My name is Andy Warhol, and I just finished eating a hamburger,” he says. Is it art or satire? You be the judge.
Put on your best headphones and listen to this playlist inspired by the pop culture icon himself, Andy Warhol.
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Life on 26 April 2021.
Cover Image: Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.