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Andy Warhol: One Of The Most Controversial But Pioneering Artists Of Our Time

Andy Warhol In His Early Days

He was born in Pittsburgh in August 1928. He did not have an easy childhood. His parents had immigrated from Ukraine — his father in 1914 and his mother following later in 1921 — and his father worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The family lived in a rowhouse in a working class section of the city.

As a child he apparently contracted scarlet fever, which caused his skin to be blotchy for the rest of his life. He subsequently suffered a bout of Sydenham’s chorea, also known as St. Vitus Dance, a disease that causes involuntary movements in the arms and legs. He had to stay home for extended periods of time, and while sitting there alone, he drew pictures and designs, and he listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars.

It’s no surprise, then, that he was an outcast at school. And after his father died, when he was 13, he developed a strong bond with his mother — he lived with her on and off, even as an adult after he became rich and famous.

He graduated from high school in 1945 and went to Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University) where he studied commercial art and was art director of the student magazine.

Andy Warhol Takes New York

After college he headed to New York, where he began a career as a designer for advertising and magazines. He was recognized for his whimsical ink drawings of shoes, and then he began designing promotional materials and album covers for various recording companies. He experimented in a number of different media, including printmaking techniques and silkscreens, often intentionally leaving mistakes or stray marks in his final works.

He began to exhibit his paintings in galleries in New York and then Los Angeles. The artwork focused on everyday items and even commercial products, including Coke bottles, dollar bills, and also more controversial items such as electric chairs, mushroom-shaped clouds and police dogs. Then he went on to do portraits of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.

Are you beginning to sense who this fellow was?

Andy Warhol & The Factory

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In the early 1960s he founded his studio called The Factory, where he gathered together a loose group of avant-garde artists, including sculptors, filmmakers, actors, as well as writers like Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg and musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. The Factory also attracted assorted counterculture eccentrics, and became known as a place where people experimented with mind-altering drugs.

The Work Of Warhol

He helped found and briefly managed a rock group called The Velvet Underground. He made a number of experimental films, including Kiss, a 50-minute silent movie showing nothing but people kissing. Sleep was a six hour film showing a friend of his sleeping, and Eat focused on another friend consuming a mushroom for 45 minutes. He also made a few slightly more mainstream movies such as a take on a Batman film and an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, as well as several more sexually explicit films including homoerotic films that played in New York porn theaters.

Yet his most famous and prolific work came in painting, as he developed a reputation as the Pope of Pop. We’re all familiar with his rendering of a Campbell’s soup can, for example, and a banana, as well as his flowers, cats and ice-cream cones. He also did many self-portraits as well as memorable paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mao Zedong, Queen Elizabeth.

The Controversy Of Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was controversial from beginning to end; yet he remained a practicing Catholic and went to church for most of his life. In 1968, a radical feminist who favored doing away with all men shot Warhol at The Factory. Warhol was severely wounded and underwent emergency open-heart surgery. He suffered after-effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

After the shooting, security at The Factory was tightened and some said The Factory ’60s were over. But Warhol kept on working, painting pictures, making movies, and starting the magazine Interview which featured long conversations with celebrities, musicians and artists.

The Legacy

Warhol received his share of criticism from both traditional art critics as well as those who thought he was too commercial, too focused on celebrity … and made too much money. But his legacy today is secure, as his works are displayed in top museums including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and other venues around the world. He is also remembered for his famous 15-minutes-of-fame pronouncement: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Warhol died in 1987 of cardiac arrhythmia after gallbladder surgery. He was 58 years old. Today he is remembered not only for his artwork, but also in books and movies — including the “revelation” in Men in Black 3 that he was an undercover MIB agent. In 2002 the U.S. Postal Service comemmorated a stamp in his honor. And today the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is the largest museum in the world devoted to a single artist.

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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