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Andy Warhol Critical Essays

Andy Warhol: The Case Against has just opened at Dulwich Picture Gallery. No, it hasn't. The exhibition is called Andy Warhol: The Portfolio. It is a survey of his career as a printmaker. The works come from the collection of the Bank of America, and together they are about as exciting as staring at dollar bills. Which Warhol liked to do, of course.

It starts well, with an image of police violence against civil-rights protesters that typifies the power of Warhol's best work. In the 1960s when he became famous this artist, who boasted of his own passivity, was an all-too-accurate eye, recording the violence of a revolutionary age. Even the flower prints in the first gallery here somehow reek of Vietnam.

Since his death, critics and curators have revealed more and more that is impressive about Warhol. He really did, at his best, have an extraordinary vision of modern life. But the Warhol redemption has reached saturation point. You can feel that in the current Hayward Gallery exhibition Invisible, in which the weakest thing by far is an empty plinth by Warhol. It just seems glib, and so do the prints here.

Even in the first room, by the end of the 60s, Warhol is churning out print runs that recreate his early Campbell's soup paintings. The sweet pedantry of the originals is replaced by glossy production values and easy money. The desire to exploit his own fame is not even concealed. Here we start to see Bad Andy, the source of so much that is cynical and empty in the art of today.

His readiness to turn anything at all into a brightly coloured Warhol print for the art market soon separated my visual and emotional responses. I turned into a caricature of Warhol. Gee, look at those grapes. Wow, Vesuvius erupting ... The impact weakens and dissolves: Warhol really did become totally bland and industrial in his later years. His Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century are especially inane.

Turning art into a mass-produced commodity, and the artist into a brand identity, Warhol at his worst anticipated what have become routine artistic strategies in a smoothed-out global art machine. He had a lot of a saving graces – but perhaps it would be good to have a break from Warhol until those can once again be rediscovered with the surprise this exhibition fails to elicit.

To be honest, I feel sorry for Dulwich Picture Gallery. It houses a tremendous collection of European oil paintings. How can it stay "relevant" in a time when the culture seems fixated on contemporary art? It's desperately trying to join in, but iisn't convincing. I think they do art history better and should stick with it.

Out on the lawn are some big colourful sculptures by Phillip Haas that recreate the strange art of Arcimboldo, the Renaissance painter whose heads made of fruit and flowers delighted Renaissance courts and still amaze today. These are fun, but Haas also has some heads in the gallery and these just get in the way of great old paintings. Dulwich is a fine place to contemplate Rembrandt. Why can't that be enough?

• Guardian Extra members can buy 2 admission tickets for the price of 1 to see Andy Warhol: The Portfolios at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 12 August 2012. For more information, go to theguardian.com/extra

"How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you've given up something.. I think that would be so great, to be able to change styles. And I think that's what's is going to happen, that's going to be the whole new scene."

Synopsis

Andy Warhol was the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York even before he began to make art destined for galleries. Nevertheless, his screenprinted images of Marilyn Monroe, soup cans, and sensational newspaper stories, quickly became synonymous with Pop art. He emerged from the poverty and obscurity of an Eastern European immigrant family in Pittsburgh, to become a charismatic magnet for bohemian New York, and to ultimately find a place in the circles of High Society. For many his ascent echoes one of Pop art's ambitions, to bring popular styles and subjects into the exclusive salons of high art. His crowning achievement was the elevation of his own persona to the level of a popular icon, representing a new kind of fame and celebrity for a fine artist.

Key Ideas

Warhol's early commercial illustration has recently been acclaimed as the arena in which he first learned to manipulate popular tastes. His drawings were often comic, decorative, and whimsical, and their tone is entirely different from the cold and impersonal mood of his Pop art.

Much debate still surrounds the iconic screenprinted images with which Warhol established his reputation as a Pop artist in the early 1960s. Some view his Death and Disaster series, and his Marilyn pictures, as frank expressions of his sorrow at public events. Others view them as some of the first expressions of 'compassion fatigue' - the way the public loses the ability to sympathize with events from which they feel removed. Still others think of his pictures as screens - placed between us and horrifying events - which attempt to register and process shock.

Although artists had drawn on popular culture throughout the twentieth century, Pop art marked an important new stage in the breakdown between high and low art forms. Warhol's paintings from the early 1960s were important in pioneering these developments, but it is arguable that the diverse activities of his later years were just as influential in expanding the implications of Pop art into other spheres, and further eroding the borders between the worlds of high art and popular culture.

Although Warhol would continue to create paintings intermittently throughout his career, in 1965 he "retired" from the medium to concentrate on making experimental films. Despite years of neglect, these films have recently attracted widespread interest, and Warhol is now seen as one of the most important filmmakers of the period, a forefather of independent film.

Critics have traditionally seen Warhol's career as going into decline in 1968, after he was shot by Valerie Solanas. Valuing his early paintings above all, they have ignored the activities that absorbed his attention in later years - parties, collecting, publishing, and painting commissioned portraits. Yet some have begun to think that all these ventures make up Warhol's most important legacy because they prefigure the diverse interests, activities, and interventions that occupy artists today.

Most Important Art

Campbell's Soup Cans (1962)

By the 1960s, the New York art world was in a rut, the very original and popular canvases of the Abstract Expressionist of the 1940s and '50s have become cliche. Warhol was one of the artists that felt the need to bring back imagery into his work. The gallery owner and interior designer Muriel Latow gave Warhol the idea of painting soup cans, when she suggested to him that he should paint objects that people use every day (it is rumored that Warhol ate the soup for lunch every single day).

Warhol was an extremely successful consumer ad designer. He used the techniques of his trade to create an image that is both easily recognizable, but also visually stimulating. Why have 32, very ordinary canvasses take up a huge wall of an expensive gallery space? Consumer goods and ad imagery were flooding the lives of Americans with the prosperity of that age and Warhol set out to subtly recreate that abbundance, via images found in advertising. He recreated on canvas the experience of being in a well-stocked supermarket. So, Warhol is credited with envisioning a new type of art that glorified (and also criticized) the consumption habits of his contemporaries and consumers today.

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Andy Warhol Artworks in Focus:

Andy Warhol Overview Continues Below

Biography

Childhood

Andy was the third child born to Czechoslovakian immigrant parents, Ondrej and Ulja (Julia) Warhola, in a working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He had two older brothers, John and Paul. As a child, Andy was smart and creative. His mother, a casual artist herself, encouraged his artistic urges by giving him his first camera at nine years old. Warhol was known to suffer from a nervous disorder that would frequently keep him at home, and, during these long periods, he would listen to the radio and collect pictures of movie stars around his bed. It was this exposure to current events at a young age that he later said shaped his obsession with pop culture and celebrities. When he was 14, his father passed away, leaving the family money to be specifically used towards higher learning for one of the boys. It was decided by the family that Andy would benefit the most from a college education.

Early Training

After graduating from high school at the age of 16, in 1945, Warhol attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), where he received formal training in pictorial design. Shortly after graduating, in 1949, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a commercial illustrator. His first project was for Glamour magazine for an article entitled, "Success is a Job in New York." Throughout the 1950s Warhol continued his successful career in commercial illustration, working for several well-known magazines, such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker. He also produced advertising and window displays for local New York retailers. His work with I. Miller & Sons, for which his whimsical blotted line advertisements were particularly noticed, gained him some local notoriety, even winning several awards from the Art Director's Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

In the early 1950s, Andy shortened his name from Warhola to Warhol, and decided to strike out on his own as a serious artist. His experience and expertise in commercial art, combined with his immersion in American popular culture, influenced his most notable work. In 1952, he exhibited Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote in his first individual show at the Hugo Gallery in New York. While exhibiting work in several venues around New York City, he most notably exhibited at MoMA, where he participated in his first group show in 1956. Warhol took notice of new emerging artists, greatly admiring the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, which inspired him to expand his own artistic experimentation.

In 1960, Warhol began using advertisements and comic strips in his paintings. These works, examples of early Pop art, were characterized by more expressive and painterly styles that included clearly recognizable brushstrokes, and were loosely influenced by Abstract Expressionism. However, subsequent works, such his Brillo Boxes (1964), would mark a direct rebellion against Abstract Expressionism, by almost completely removing any evidence of the artist's hand.

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Andy Warhol Biography Continues

Mature Period

In September 1960, after moving to a townhouse at 1342 Lexington Avenue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he began his most prolific period. From having no dedicated studio space in his previous apartment, where he lived with his mother, he now had plenty of room to work. In 1962 he offered the Department of Real Estate $150 a month to rent a nearby obsolete fire house on East 87th Street. He was granted permission and used this space in conjunction with his Lexington Avenue space until 1964.

Continuing with the theme of advertisements and comic strips, his paintings throughout the early part of the 1960s were based primarily on illustrated images from printed media and graphic design. To create his large-scale graphic canvases, Warhol used an opaque projector to enlarge the images onto a large canvas on the wall. Then, working freehand, he would trace the image with paint directly onto the canvas without a pencil tracing underneath. As a result, Warhol's works from early 1961 are generally more painterly.

Late in 1961, Warhol started on his Campbell's Soup Can paintings. The series employed many different techniques, but most were created by projecting source images on to canvas, tracing them with a pencil, and then applying paint. In this way Warhol removed most signs of the artist's hand.

In 1962 Warhol started to explore silkscreening. This stencil process involved transferring an image on to a porous screen, then applying paint or ink with a rubber squeegee. This marked another means of painting while removing traces of his hand; like the stencil processes he had used to create the Campbell's Soup Can pictures, this also enabled him to repeat the motif multiple times across the same image, producing a serial image suggestive of mass production. Often, he would first set down a layer of colors which would compliment the stencilled image after it was applied.

His first silkscreened paintings were based on the front and back faces of dollar bills, and he went on to create several series of images of various consumer goods and commercial items using this method. He depicted shipping and handling labels, Coca-Cola bottles, coffee can labels, Brillo Soap box labels, matchbook covers, and cars. From autumn 1962 he also started to produce photo-silkscreen works, which involved transferring a photographic image on the porous silkscreens. His first was Baseball (1962), and those that followed often employed banal or shocking imagery derived from tabloid newspaper photographs of car crashes and civil rights riots, money and consumer household products.

In 1964 Warhol moved to 231 East 47th Street, calling it "The Factory." Having achieved moderate success as an artist by this point, he was able to employ several assistants to help him execute his work. This marked a turning point in his career. Now, with the help of his assistants, he could more decisively remove his hand from the canvas and create repetitive, mass-produced images that would appear empty of meaning and beg the question, "What makes art, art?" This was an idea first introduced by Marcel Duchamp, whom Warhol admired.

Warhol had a lifelong fascination with Hollywood, demonstrated by his series of iconic images of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. He also expanded his medium into installations, most notably at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964, replicating Brillo boxes in their actual size and then screenprinting their label designs onto blocks made of plywood.

Wanting to continue his exploration of different mediums, Warhol began experimenting with film in 1963. Two years later, after a trip to Paris for an exhibition of his work, he announced that he would be retiring from painting to focus exclusively on film. Although he never completely followed through with this intention, he did produce many films, most starring those whom he called the Warholstars, an eccentric and eclectic group of friends who frequented the Factory and were known for their unconventional lifestyle.

He created approximately 600 films between 1963 and 1976, ones ranging in length from a few minutes to 24 hours. He also developed a project called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or EPI, in 1967. The EPI was a multi-media production combining The Velvet Underground rock band with projections of film, light and dance, culminating in a sensory experience of performance art. Warhol had also been self-publishing artist's books since the 1950s, but his first mass produced book, Andy Warhol's Index, was published in 1967. He later published several other books, and founded Interview Magazine with his friend Gerard Malanga in 1969. The magazine is dedicated to celebrities and is still in production today.

After an attempt on his life in 1968, by acquaintance and radical feminist, Valerie Solanas, he decided to distance himself from his unconventional entourage. This marked the end of the 1960s Factory scene. Warhol subsequently sought out companionship in New York high society, and throughout most of the 1970s his work consisted of commissioned portraits derived from printed Polaroid photographs. The most notable exception to this is his famous Mao series, which was done as a comment on President Richard Nixon's visit to China. Lacking the glamour and commercial appeal of his earlier portraits, critics saw Warhol as prostituting his artistic talent, and viewed this later period as one of decline. However, Warhol saw financial success as an important goal. At this point, he had made the successful shift from commercial artist to business artist.

Late Years and Death

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Warhol made a return to painting, and produced works that frequently verged on abstraction. His Oxidation Painting series, which were made by urinating on a canvas of copper paint, echoed the immediacy of the Abstract Expressionists and the rawness of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. By the 1980s, Warhol had regained much of his critical notoriety, due in part to his collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, two much younger and more cutting-edge artists. And, in the final years of Warhol's life, he turned to religious subjects; his version of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is particularly renowned. In these works, Warhol melded the sacred and the irreverent by juxtaposing enlarged logos of brands against images of Christ and his Apostles.

After suffering postoperative complications from a routine gall bladder procedure, Warhol died on February 22, 1987. He was buried in his hometown of Pittsburgh. His memorial service was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and attended by more than 2,000 people.


Legacy

Andy Warhol was one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century, creating some of the most recognizable images ever produced. Challenging the idealist visions and personal emotions conveyed by abstraction, Warhol embraced popular culture and commercial processes to produce work that appealed to the general public. He was one of the founding fathers of the Pop art movement, expanding the ideas of Duchamp by challenging the very definition of art. His artistic risks and constant experimentation with subjects and media made him a pioneer in almost all forms of visual art. His unconventional sense of style and his celebrity entourage helped him reach the mega-star status to which he aspired.

Warhol's will dictated that his estate fund the Warhol Foundation for the advancement of the visual arts, which was subsequently created later that year. Through the joint efforts of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, and Dia Center for the Arts the Warhol Museum was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1994, housing a large collection of Warhol's work.

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