Andy Warhol’s Pop Art plays on everyone’s fantasies of an inaccessible glamour and celebrity, as embodied in Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Mick Jagger. At the same time, his art demonstrates, over and over, that Marilyn and Elvis, Jackie and Mick are available to everyone, as if they were a can of Coca-Cola.
With his pop painting incorporating images of consumer products and movie stars, Warhol addressed the changes brought about in our society through mass communications and mass productions. In a way that was daring and yet instantly accessible, he reflected the contemporary culture of the United States, and therefore of a world culture that was coming more and more under the American influence. Beyond that, by creating artworks that looked indistinguishable from consumer products such as Coca-Cola bottles or Campbell cans, Warhol presented us with genuine philosophical challenges – which, remarkably enough, everybody understood. As for Warhol’s impact on society, he invented a new approach to America’s fascination with celebrity. He became a celebrity himself, something that had been done before by only a few American artists.
“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see. When I was little, I never left Pennsylvania, and I used to have fantasies about things that I thought were happening…that I felt I was missing out on. But you can only live life in one place at a time… You live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one”.
Andy Warhol, 1985
Warhol had lived in just such a fantasy America since his childhood days, when he began collecting autographed photos of movie actors.
Andy Warhol’s father Andrej Warhola, born in 1886, emigrated from Mikova, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, to the United States around 1913 and found work as a coal miner. His wife Julia Zavacky (born in 1892), who had married Andrej in 1909, stayed behind; she was unable to follow him to America until 1921. The following year, Julia gave birth to her first child, Paul, and in 1925 to the second, John. Her youngest, Andy, was born in Pittsburgh on August 6, 1928. In Pittsburgh, Andrej Warhola became a laborer in heavy construction. To help support the family, Julia made paper flowers, which she planted in tin cans and sold door-to-door.
The young Andy loved drawing, painting, cutting designs from paper and reading, specially comics and magazines. With Julia’s blessing, Andy skipped grades one and five at elementary school and took free classes in studio art and art appreciation at nearby Carnegie Institute. A few years later, when Andy was 13 years old, Andrej Warhol fell ill and died from tuberculous peritonitis.
In 1945, at age 17, Andy enrolled in the College of Fine Arts of Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he majored in pictorial design. During his summer vacations, he worked as a window dresser at Horne’s department store. Warhol also taught art part-time at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement.
In 1949, a week after his college graduation, Warhol moved to Manhattan where he started a career as a commercial artist. His first assignment was to illustrate an article in Glamour magazine, “Success is a Job in New York.”
As Andy Warhol wrote in 1975, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke”.
The combination of celebrity worship and consumerism was the keystone of Warhol’s unique pop vision.