Reflecting a cynical and uninhibited era, Andy’s work, easily merging with his lifestyle as an arty New York dandy, helped to raise the awareness of the general public – in whose eyes he would remain an icon of the Sixties – about how images can be hijacked, in other words, how spectators can be bluffed. That Warhol was a prophet who denounced this tendency, or that he took pleasure in this “soup”, are different theories that feed the debate.

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A mine of experience

Andy Warhol – born as Andrew Warhola Jr. – grew up in Pittsburgh, USA. His father, Andrew Warhola Sr., a Slovakian immigrant, worked in its region’s open-pit mines from 1914 onwards, struggling to make two ends meet and to support his four children, whose mother, Julia, could only make it to join them in the United States in 1921. Against this miserable industrial backdrop, Andy, born on 6 August 1928, often fell ill, and the Great Depression didn’t make things any easier…

Young Andrew Warhola Jr. Image: artnet Young Andrew Warhola Jr. Image: artnet

At the age of nine, he contracted Sydenham’s chorea, a contagious disease affecting the nervous system, which confined him to bed over long stretches and disrupted his schooling. By his own admission, this period – when he started drawing, collected photos of film stars, and listened to the radio next to his mother, a woman who never learned English and remained under the sway of Orthodox religion and Byzantine imagery – defined his tastes and influenced his art. Andrew Warhola Sr. died in 1942, and two years later, Andy enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. He graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a penchant for blotted-line prints.

A kid of the ad scene

Next stop, New York. Andy found work as a commercial illustrator for magazines such as Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker, his artistic flair champing at the bit while he decorated department-store windows and exhibited drawings in restaurants frequented by the stars of the time.

Self-Portrait dated 1986. Sold by Christie's in May 2011 for 27 522 500 USD. Image: Christies Self-Portrait dated 1986. Sold by Christie's in May 2011 for 27 522 500 USD. Image: Christies

By the time that he held his first show in a New York gallery in 1952, he was already dabbling in a bit of everything: he created costumes for a theatre company (his blond wig hailed from this experience), designed Christmas cards for fashionable stores, while his commercial drawings kept getting better and won him accolades. He also gradually sharpened his business sense: Warhol plainly referred to his work as “commercial art”, and wasn’t averse to raking in money, so deprived had his childhood in Pittsburgh once been.

The Swinging Sixties

The sophisticated adman embraced contemporary art in the 1960s, driven by his insatiable curiosity, especially about the European avant-garde (for example Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle), and his capacity to assimilate all media and techniques (including comics, painting, serigraphs, photo and film). Thanks to his expertise in staging events and creating happenings, soon it would be him the trendsetter – so much so that Andy Warhol became a Pop Art authority (albeit the movement’s birth on the Old Continent) alongside his compatriots Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist.

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In 1963, Warhol began developing the technique that he would use to produce his best-known works: silkscreen prints of black-and-white photos of celebrities (including Mao, Marilyn, and himself) or images of everyday consumer products (like Coca Cola bottles, Campbell’s soup cans, or dollar bills), smothered with large blocks of colour. The multiplication of the one motif on a piece of fabric revealed his chosen object as a “cliché” (a term incidentally also meaning “snapshot” in French), blurring the boundary between elitist art and popular culture while also criticising mass-consumption society and standardisation. Produced in the early 1960s, Andy Warhol’s first known self-portrait was sold by Christie’s in New York in 2011 for 38.44 million dollars…

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The Factory

Backed up by droves of collaborators, mainly responsible for reproducing his creations, Warhol moved, in the mid 1960s, into an industrial space on 47th Street. Dubbed the Factory, the premises became a cult spot in New York’s underground life. Here, he directed various experimental films, and helped to record the Velvet Underground’s first songs. So actively did Warhol support the band’s beginnings that he went as far as announcing that he was quitting the visual arts for music…

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But he returned to painting at the start of the 1970s, coming up with new series of portraits or else so-called retrospective creations, and also accepting commissions from wealthy collectors and celebrities, both in the United States and Europe.

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His many-faceted, unclassifiable work runs to tens of thousands of pieces. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh alone displays 10,000 of them, in the form of paintings, films, photos, paper works, to name a few. Warhol’s family also initiated the founding of a Warhol Museum in Slovakia, opening in the town of Medzilaborce in the early 1990s.

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