Two exhibitions in 1962 announced Andy Warhol’s dramatic entry into the art world. In July, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, he exhibited his now-iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans. The work’s 32 canvases, each one featuring a different variety of the company’s 32 soups, were lined up in a single row on a ledge that wrapped around the gallery. “Cans sit on shelves,” the gallery director, Irving Blum, later said of the installation. “Why not?” The paintings marked a breakthrough for Warhol, who had previously worked as a commercial illustrator: they were among his first works based on consumer goods, and among the first to embrace serial repetition. Although he hand-painted each canvas, they were made to seem mechanically produced.
Later that year, Warhol mounted an exhibition at New York’s Stable Gallery, displaying silkscreen prints with a flat uniformity that would become his signature style. The silkscreen, at the time primarily a commercial technique, allowed a theoretically endless number of repetitions and variations of his chosen subject. The exhibition included numerous portraits of legendary actress Marilyn Monroe, whose recent suicide sent shockwaves through American popular culture. In Gold Marilyn Monroe, Warhol memorialized Monroe by screening her face onto a gold-painted canvas, recalling the look of a Byzantine icon.
Strategies drawn from printmaking, including multiplicity, mirroring, transfer, and replication, would prove central and enduring tenets in Warhol’s work. Throughout the 1960s, he continued to mine the world of celebrity for his art, creating images of stars and public figures so familiar that they were often known by only their first name: Elvis, Jackie, and, again, Marilyn. Likewise, his engagement with the subject of commodity culture signaled in Campbell’s Soup Cans would find a sculptural analogue in his boxes silkscreened with the labels of Campbell’s tomato juice, Brillo soap pads, and Heinz ketchup. “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel,” Warhol would remark. His Death and Disaster series, begun in 1963, tests that statement. In works like Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times and Electric Chairs, the force of repetition rendered the scenes at once banal and more emphatically traumatic.
Warhol was also a pioneering and prolific filmmaker. His famous Screen Tests, made between 1964 and 1966, consist of 472 individual filmed portraits of visitors to his legendary studio, known as the Factory. A testament to his perennial interest in portraiture, the Screen Tests also advanced a new definition of film performance, starring non-professionals whose only task was to remain silent and still for the duration of a roll of film. Other works challenged the limits of audience attention, such as Empire, an eight-hour stationary shot of the Empire State Building. Drawing from a range of genres, Warhol also made scripted, feature-length films that delved into New York’s underground subcultures and turned the Factory’s collection of artists and misfits into “superstars.”
By 1971, New York magazine had dubbed Warhol “The Zeitgeist incarnate,” declaring, “The images he leaves will be the permanent record of America in the sixties.” He had launched his own magazine, Interview, in 1969, and in the years that followed he circulated in the world of celebrity he had long represented in his art. In the 1980s, he returned to painting in works like the giant Rorschach. As suggested by Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation 1473, he also turned his creative attentions to art history itself.
Two years after his death in 1987, MoMA mounted its first retrospective of his work. Since then, Warhol’s stature has only grown, as the influence of his work—in its merging of pop culture and fine art, its exploitation of the serial logic of the print, and his own canny media manipulation and self-fashioning—continues to reverberate.
Natalie Dupêcher, independent scholar, 2019