Andy Warhol paintings are among the most instantly recognized and easily identified works.
Born Andrew Warhola (1928-87), he grew up during the Depression in a middle class Pittsburgh neighborhood (not far from the present Warhol Museum). He was graduated from present-day Carnegie Mellon with a B. F. A., and became one of the most successful illustrators in the 1950s while also producing movies, sculpting, photographing, and painting.
As a painter, Warhol expropriated common media images – comic strips, sheets of stamps, ads for dance classes, photos of wanted criminals, pages from tabloids – and painted them in acrylic on canvas. Sometime in 1962, though, he began screenprinting photographic images directly on to canvas, usually in multiples, like his iconic Campbell soup cans.
When Campbell’s Soup Cans was first exhibited, each of the 32 paintings (the number of soup varieties then available) rested on a wall-mounted shelf, simulating placement in a grocery store. This mass production of art depicting ordinary objects blurred the historical distinction between fine art and pop culture – and Warhol became a Pop art sensation.
Perhaps the best known Andy Warhol paintings are the celebrity series of Marilyn Monroe. Begun in 1962, these works paid homage to the actress and national icon who had just committed suicide. Reworking a well-known publicity photo of Monroe from her 1953 movie, Niagara, Warhol transforms it into a stilted, mask-like impression of Monroe: this is the glamorous star, the actress, the former wife of baseball great Joe DiMaggio and of playwright Arthur Miller, but not an individual.
Warhol used this mask-like photo in Gold Marilyn, which reminds the viewer of all we never knew about Marilyn. Here, Marilyn is on a lavish, expansive gold background, world-renowned yet isolated.
With a middle class, immigrant upbringing, perhaps Warhol identified with the dissonance between Monroe’s personal and public life as he,too, navigated a world of glamour.
In Warhol’s case – dissonance or not – he continued to work prolifically as a moviemaker, painter, producer of TV shows, sculptor, writer (including Saturday Night Live), producer of music videos, and photographer before his death in 1987.