Andy Warhol was so dedicated to being an artist that he overcame major physical and emotional challenges. Warhol was born in 1929 to poor parents who had emigrated to America from modern day Slovakia. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where he had a difficult childhood, due to his suffering from a medical disorder called Sydenham’s chorea. This serious condition, which causes loss of motor control over limbs and involuntary facial twitches, was a terrible blow to young Warhol’s ambitions. Not only were there physical challenges he had to face, but having to spend weeks at a time in bed, he was also socially cut off from his peers. Nonetheless, he overcame the disease if not the sense of isolation, to study commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating with a BA in Fine Art in 1949.
Being at the Right Place at the Right Time
Andy Warhol had a profound grasp of the revolution of the 1960s. Having moved to New York to work in advertising and illustration for magazines, Warhol was perfectly placed to witness both the explosion of mass production and marketing and the rise of a counter-culture that apposed the crassness of modern advertising. Warhol’s art embraced both developments. His work began to be displayed in galleries in the late 1950s and early 1960s. From this ‘Pop Art’ period comes his famous, repeated images of quintessential American people and objects: Marilyn Monroe, Mohamed Ali, Elvis Presley, Campbell’s Soup Cans, electric chairs, dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles, etc.
Satire and subversion can have a powerful impact. Some early critics misunderstood Warhol and thought that he was embracing US capitalism, that his paintings were merely ads. But when you take an advertising idea or image and exaggerate it, draw attention to it, repeat it and place it in a gallery it changes its meaning. The artwork becomes both a mirror on the world and an iconic artifact in its own right. The mockery in Andy Warhol’s approach to art often makes the impact of his prints and paintings deeply subversive. At times, his work even evokes anger at the distasteful use of matters like the death chair or fatal car accidents as commercial promotion tools and topics.
Andy Warhol made himself a celebrity as well as an artist. He is the one who said we each have our ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. He had a knack for advertising, he knew how to be accurately provocative and get the right kind of attention. Warhol founded ‘the Factory’, his New York studio, where he surrounded himself with ‘art-workers’ who helped him produce silk screens and films in an atmosphere of permissiveness, parties and amphetamines. The fact that he was at the center of a larger network of artists meant that even when the momentum behind the appeal of his own works faltered, interest in him would be revived by the success of someone he had mentored.
Andy Warhol died in 1987 and his works have gone on to be extraordinarily collectible. In 2013, ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’ sold at auction for $105.4m.