Why Was Andy Warhol’s Work so Famous?

Luke Sparkes
07 Aug 2019

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it”

A quote that has pushed critics consistently back to the work of the insatiable pop artist in search of further meanings and relationships between Warhol and his work. Warhol, “the white-wigged Wizard of Oz” is considered one of the two (along with Picasso) most influential artists of the 20th century, but what made this genius yet sometimes insincere and flippant man (his friends nicknamed him Drella, a portmanteau of the names Dracula and Cinderella) so popular?

At the beginning of the 1960’s, Pop Art in its experimental form was being adopted by early pioneers such as Roy Lichtenstein and would eventually become synonymous with the movement. Warhol, who would become famous as the ‘Pope of Pop’, turned to this new style, where popular subjects could be a part of the artist’s palette.

His aesthetic was a unique convergence of fine art mediums such as photography and drawing with highly commercialised components revolving around household brand and celebrity names. He garnered international attention for his unique productions. He liked to maintain an element of personal and professional mystery, admitting that he never discussed his background and would invent a new persona every time he was asked.

Pop Art
Warhol, in essence, was responsible for the rise of Pop Art and the dethroning of abstract expressionism. He explored the connection between celebrity culture and artistic expression and took 50s obsession with commercialism, Hollywood and consumer products, and turned – with a satirical hint of its shallowness – everyday objects and people from America’s then popular culture, into today’s most recognisable Pop Art pieces.

His personal understanding of fame, celebrity culture and the rise of the media allowed him to adopt an artistic approach towards people and objects that manifested the time’s post-war socio-culture reality and objectify them to an extreme on canvases. His edgy, straight forward, colourful interpretations of common objects and Hollywood stars changed the art world forever.

Common Objects
1961 Andy Warhol’s work showcased a collection of paintings that focused on mass-produced commercial goods. Campbells Soup Cans – some of his most well renowned works – consist of 32 canvases, each measuring 20 inches in height and 16 inches in width. Every single one is a picture of the canned soup varieties that was on offer at the time. The individual paintings were produced by the printmaking method – the semi mechanised screen-printing process, using a non-painterly style.

The combination of the semi-mechanised process, the non-painterly style and the commercial subject initially caused offence, as the work’s blatantly mundane commercialism represented a direct affront to the technique and philosophy of abstract expressionism. The abstract expressionism art movement was dominant during the post war period and it held not only to “fine art`” values and aesthetics, but also to mystical inclination.

This controversy led to a great deal of debate about the merits and ethics of such work. Warhol’s motives as an artist were questioned, and they continue to be topical to this day. But all publicity is good publicity and the large public commotion helped distinguish his artwork from other Pop Art artists,

And although the commercial demand for this soup cans was not immediate, Warhol’s association with the subject led to his name becoming synonymous with the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings, and in 2007 his 1964 Large Campbell’s Soup Can sold in Sotheby’s to a South American collector for £5.1 million.

He went on to showcase depictions of hamburgers and Coco Cola bottles, finding a positive view in ordinary culture. Contrasting against Caravaggio’s basket of fruits, Chardin’s plus peaches or Cezanne’s vibrant arrangement of apples, the almost mundane Campbell’s Soup Cans shook up the art world. By isolating eminently recognisable pop culture items was ridiculous but accessible. It created debates about what was really considered art. Plus, he was creating art from something that even working-class people could relate too. His minimal art style eliminated overtones and undertones that would otherwise be associated with representations and instead portrayed objects in their most simple and most recognisable form, meaning everyone from famous pop stars, to stay at home mums could appreciate it.

Why Was Andy Warhol’s Work so Famous?

Alongside pictures of soup cans, Andy Warhol also created portraits of quirky celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Andy loved celebrities and he was almost obsessed with fame, “in the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes”. In 1964, Warhol opened his famous studio known as, ‘The Factory’. He created most of his artwork there as well as holding some of the most extravagant parties of the 60’s. So extravagant that it was known as New York City’s centre for sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and art. Everyone from Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Edie Sedgwick, as well as fellow artist Salvador Dali, singer Lou Reed and many others attended parties there. They were usually eccentric, provocative and most of all, famous!

He used The Factory as a means to watch and engage with celebrities and their culture as well as paint them, “I’ve always been fascinated by the assumptions that rich kids make”, “a lot of them think it’s normal, the way they live – because it’s all they’ve ever known. I love to watch their minds operate”.

A lot of celebrities attending Andy Warhol’s parties in the hope that they would be painted, including the beautiful Marilyn Monroe. Warhol painted her portrait after Monroe had overdosed on barbiturates and died. He was fascinated by the very idea of figures such a Monroe; with a glamorous lifestyle and an almost mythical status as a Hollywood icon, he wanted to portray her as the sex goddess she was, whilst creating a consumer item to be mass produced.

Marilyn Monroe 1962 is perhaps one of Warhol’s most works. It was exhibited in his first New York exhibition in 1962. The work is made up of two canvases, each featuring 25 Marilyn’s printed in a grid pattern. The rows of repetitive heads suggest postage stamps, billboard posters or perhaps more fittingly, film strips, all of which link back to his interest in commercial imagery.

He also painted ten portraits of Mick Jagger and several portraits of Elvis Presley, too. He used photographic silkscreen printing to create his celebrity portraits. This meant he could directly reproduce images already in the public eye, such as publicity shots or tabloid photographs. The technique also allowed him to easily produce multiple versions and variations of the prints.

He had an innate understanding of the superficial nature of celebrity in American society. Images of public figures are created by marketing companies to make money, but in reality, day very little about the person behind the mask. Warhol immersed himself in this idea and succeeded in creating a powerful public image for himself – the Andy Warhol ‘brand- with his trademark blonde hair and dark glasses. He had become the very thing he painted, a master at cultivating his own celebrity profile, whilst remaining very private about his personal life and background. He constantly documented his daily life through photography and film, a bit like today’s version of social media – all was only discovered once he had passed away.

Andy Warhol’s artwork was so popular because he either made artwork that appealed to the masses; artwork that anyone could relate too. With his commercial imagery, as mentioned previously, although not everyone could afford his artwork, anyone could appreciate it. You could look at it and instantly know what it is, knowing there was no pretentious undertones, no hidden meanings, it was just a can of Campbells Soup.

And contrastingly, he painted celebrities and their lives, using colour to convey different undertones, for example, when he painted Marilyn Monroe, he painted one canvas in vibrant colours, bursting with energy, a solid representation of the star’s flamboyant personality. The other canvas is a monochrome and sombre picture, the uneven application of ink causing her face to slowly disappear, the two contrasting sides of this work capture the contrast between Marilyn’s artificial public persona and the harsh reality of her troubled private life. He shed light on the highlights and lowlights of being famous.

Whether he was creating artwork that didn’t need to be ‘understood’, or art that conveyed the soul selling life that celebrities led, he created artwork that everyone could appreciate and enjoy and he took the world from fine art, to Pop Art.

We have a signed copy of Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon by Andy Warhol

Click here to buy it online

Andy Warhol - Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon

Sign up for our newsletter

Be the first to find out about our monthly curated pieces

Sign Up Now
Sign up

S & P Gallery Launch

An opportunity to experience our limited edition art prints for the first time