Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Andy Warhol - The Guess Handbag of the Art World

Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987) is an obvious and primary example of what happens when the individual artist surpasses the importance and fame of the art movement. While he was a central part of the Pop Art Movement his works came to be used to symbolise popular culture in a more general sense.

Andy Warhol fantasised about becoming wealthy one day. Very wealthy. It is said that he “wanted to walk down the street and hear someone whisper, ‘There goes the richest person in the world’”. Warhol was intrigued by wealth, luxury, the elite, social power and influence and fame.

During the early-mid 1950s Warhol was involved in producing commercial art, creating illustrations of women’s shoes for the I.Miller shoe company. These images were published frequently in fashion page ads. He said that he “loved working when [he] worked at commercial art and they told you what to do and how to do it and all you had to do was correct it and they’d say yes or no”. The process involved in his commercial works can be seen as foreshadowing his future practices of appropriating preconceived and recognisable imagery in his art. Instead of creating unique imagery from scratch, Warhol adjusted and “corrected” images that he eventually called his own.

A number of his artworks, starting from 1960, began to appear like commercial illustrations rather than anything that would have been considered under the guise of ‘fine art’. Large Coca-Cola (1960), Coca-Cola (1960) and 210 Coca-Cola Bottles (1962) are examples of his emerging methodologies which relied on the appropriation of popular and familiar imagery that arguably commented on advertising, marketing and mass consumerism and mass production as experienced within modern American society. Warhol utilised images of products and brand names that were easily recognisable within North American households, such as Coke and Campbell’s soup.

During this time (the early 1960s) Pop art began to appear in the general press, not just the art press. With the attention of the mass media Warhol consciously began to develop an appropriate “Pop culture” persona. He adopted the persona of a teenager who was fully immersed within and influenced by popular magazines, advertising, popular music and fashion. He employed basic mannerisms and utilised a vernacular that was typical of the younger popular culture (this included describing this as either “terrific”, “fantastic” or “wow”).

The straightforward appearance of Warhol’s images, which were often presented in repetitive grid patterns, meant that the subject matter was easily accessible and a wide variety of people were able to feel confident about commenting on his works as his subject matter was already familiar to them.

Throughout his career his artworks continued to resemble commercial illustrations as opposed to any traditional form of fine art. This is also true in regard to his portraits of famous actors such as Marilyn Monroe (Six Marilyns (Marilyn six-pack) (1962) and Elizabeth Taylor. He took the image of famous people and used them in his works as he did with coke bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, manipulating and correcting the image to produce a final work.

Warhol’s practices (perhaps unwittingly) took art to a place of aesthetic meaninglessness. Through mass reproductions of already familiar imagery and products, he attempted to render irrelevant the art world’s previous attention to subject matter and imagery in art. While issues related to the modernisation of Western society including mass production and mass consumption may be seen to be highlighted within some of his works, the mass reproduction of his own works and over-exposure of his most famous pieces (think Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, coke bottles and soup cans) have turned his artistic statements into crude and tacky visual representations of popular culture.

For a large majority of people his works are no longer associated with theoretical art processes or the voice of the artist. His images have become pretty aesthetic pieces for teenagers to cover their school books in or even decorate their Facebook and Myspace profiles with. I dare to say that some of these people may be unable to identify Warhol as the artist who created the images that they find so attractive. His images became popular for this type of use as they are associated with wealthy, recognisable and popular people and brands who/that are admired for reasons of beauty, fame, social power and influence. While Warhol’s use of the screen-printing process allowed for multiple copies of his works to be created that all appeared essentially identical, digital reproductions of his works have allowed for an even more extensive and uncontrolled distribution of his images. Andy Warhol’s works have widely lost their artistic theoretical meanings and have become the Guess handbags of the art world – widely accessible and visible, yet ultimately tacky by-products of contemporary popular culture.

(All quotes taken from: David Bourdon, Warhol, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1989.)