Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground & Nico
Sequential artwork for a Velvet Underground & Nico compilation (1970)

Andy Warhol was one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century, only equalled by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. He made his mark in pop-art and became well known for his colourful paintings which bridged the gap between art and advertising. Many feature media celebrities, commercial brands and occasionally comics characters, shown on silkscreen, painted in different colours. Warhol's work exposed the shallowness and campiness of fame and brand recognizability, including his own. Apart from paintings he also ventured in films, TV shows, plays, books, musical album covers and his own rock band, The Velvet Underground and Nico. His influence is still felt today.

Early life
He was born in 1928 as Ondrej Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Hungarian-Slovakian parents. A sickly child, he spent most of his youth in bed, where he listened to the radio and read glamour magazines and comics. He was fascinated by celebrities and iconic imagery, which he enjoyed replicating in his own drawings. Among his graphic influences were Walt Disney, Chester Gould, E.C. Segar, Bob Kane, Hergé, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Warhol aspired to become an art teacher and studied commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. He published his first illustrations and designs in the college magazine Cano. After graduation in 1949 he moved to New York City, where he provided graphics for magazines and advertising companies. He also designed album covers and promotional work for RCA Records. Warhol held his first exhibitions in the 1950s, getting involved with the gradually booming "pop art" movement.

Merry Christmas by Andy Warhol
Pen and ink drawing by Andy Warhol from the 1950s

Pop art
He developed his trademark style: silkscreen paintings which had a certain amateurish, imperfect look to them, complete with smudges, smears and pictures that looked like bad prints. Originally, he focused on recreating comic characters, like his painting 'Dick Tracy' (1960), but when he found out Roy Lichtenstein was doing similar work he changed his style completely. From now on he reproduced advertising products ('Campbell Soup', 'Coca Cola') and photographs of tabloid celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor). The images were painted on silkscreen and often multiplied next to each other in different colours, such as his iconic 'Marilyn Diptich' (1962) and '100 Soup Cans' (1962). He made countless paintings in this vein, blurring the line between advertising posters and museum art.

Dick Tracy by Andy Warhol
Dick Tracy, by Andy Warhol

The Factory & film- and TV production
Due to high demand, Warhol founded his own company, aptly titled "The Factory", where new works were created on a steady basis. Much like a real factory boss he left the actual creation and designs to others, such as Gerard Malanga, Freddie Herko, Ondine, Ronald Travel, Mary Woronov, Billy Name and Brigid Berlin. His own role was merely giving directions or signs of approval. Apart from paintings, Warhol also made his mark in other media. Together with journalist John Wilcock he created the fashion magazine Interview in 1969. He attracted a huge entourage of eccentric bohemiens, gay people, transvestites and drug addicts, whom he named the "Warhol Superstars" and who were cast in several films. Many of these pictures are merely registrations of whatever happens (or doesn't happen) in front of a static camera until the footage ran out. The most infamous of these is 'Empire' (1964), an eight hour and five minutes static shot of the Empire State Building, without any sound and deliberately played at only 16 feet a second to make it even longer. Other, more watchable pictures have an actual narrative, such as 'Andy Warhol's Trash' (1969), 'Andy Warhol's Frankenstein' (1973), 'Andy Warhol's Dracula' (1974) and 'Andy Warhol's Bad' (1977), which have therefore become cult classics in the art house circuit. He also co-wrote the plays 'Pork' (1971), 'Man on the Moon' (1974) and created the MTV talkshows, 'Andy Warhol's TV' (1982) and 'Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes' (1986).

Bananas by Andy Warhol
Bananas, based on the Velvet Underground & Nico record cover. The iconic banana on the original LP cover could be peeled off like a real banana, revealing the soft pink inside. The phallic symbolism was intentional.

The Velvet Underground & other musical projects
Warhol also launched the career of the avant-garde rock band The Velvet Underground and eccentric German singer Nico. He brought the two together for their collective debut album, 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' (1967) and designed the iconic banana on the album cover, but had otherwise nothing to do with their music. This proved beneficial for the musicians themselves. Thanks to Warhol's high status they were allowed to be as taboo-breaking and experimental as they wanted. Thus, together with The Fugs and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground became the first alternative rock band in history. Unfortunately they were a little too ahead of their time. Many listeners were repulsed by their sonic experiments and confrontational lyrics about male prostitution, transvestism, sado-masochism and heroin addiction. Another significant number strongly disliked Nico's atonal voice with thick German accent and felt she couldn't sing. The fact that their debut album was produced by Warhol also misled many potential listeners into thinking the painter himself sang on it. Therefore the band distanced themselves from Warhol afterwards and went their own way. As they built up a cult following they would be vindicated by history as one of the most important and influential rock bands of all time. Much like Zappa they were particularly popular in Eastern Europe, where their music was deemed subversive by the Communist government. In 1989 poet Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and brought a peaceful transition to democracy. As a fan of the band he dubbed his revolution 'The Velvet Revolution'. Outside the Velvet Underground their two lead vocalists, Lou Reed and John Cale, would start succesful solo careers afterwards too. Nico also gained everlasting cult appeal, despite only singing three songs on 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' (and not four, because, despite what many think, 'Sunday Morning' is sang by Lou Reed in a soft voice). Just like the Velvets she also started a solo career afterwards. Warhol was also hired to design album covers for John Wallowitch's 'This Is John Wallowitch!!!' (1964), The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers' (1971) and 'Love You Live' (1977), John Cale's 'The Academy in Peril' (1972) and 'Honi Soit' (1981) and Aretha Franklin's 'Aretha' (1986). Of all these 'Sticky Fingers' became the most notorious. Its cover featured tight trousers with an actual zipper which could be pulled down.

Public image
By being present in so many different media, Warhol effectively became as recognizable as his work. The "pope of pop art" was an eccentric person who always wore a platinum wig in public. He even trimmed it to give it the appearance of actual hair. Rather than keep his wealth in a bank the suspicious hoarder stashed everything away in his own house. He preferred to eat candy and cakes, rather than healthy food. Whenever he met people he tried to be as bland and superficial as possible. Despite being homosexual, he presented himself as an asexual virgin. During interviews he refused to give any straight or helpful answers, sometimes even preferring to remain silent. The iconic painter published several books, often transcriptions of telephone recordings, complete with all the pointless and uninteresting bits people usually would leave out. The most famous of these are the posthumous 'Andy Warhol Diaries' (1989). Warhol also saved objects from his personal life (newspapers, restaurant bills, food) and stored them away in boxes. Some criticized him for just thriving on pointlessness and having no actual message. Even his paintings were basically references to other people and their work. His fondness for kitsch was far higher than his admiration for genuine art: he happily appeared on the romantic comedy TV series 'The Love Boat', the sketch show 'Saturday Night Live' and TV commercials for Braniff Air, Diet Coke and Burger King. All these aspects and the fact that his assistants did virtually all of the work led some to question whether he was just a talentless hack?

Self-portrait of Andy Warhol
Self-portrait, from 1963-1964

From a technical point of view Warhol was indeed not a great artist. His personal pencil drawings have the appearance of amateuristic fan art. He often seemed more fascinated by the familiarity of celebrity imagery than making more personal art. Yet he wasn't afraid of experimenting and provocizing his audience, as his lengthy monotone movies, shocking music and filler books prove. He even dared to take a stance by using controversial photographs in his paintings, like people being executed on the electric chair or African-American civil rights activists being attacked by police dogs. In that sense he really had a message. The artist searched for meaning in his own life too. He was a devout Eastern Orthodox Catholic who went to Mass almost daily and made several religious-themed paintings which were only discovered after his death. Warhol can also be credited with giving many artists creative freedom who would've otherwise never broken through. His global fame was such that many artists tried to get associated with him, in the knowledge it would help their own careers. He was a mentor to several famous artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Keith Haring

Warhol was also well aware of all the preposterous media attention he received. He famously predicted that superficial celebrity would soon become a trend: "In the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes." Unfortunately in 1968 his own fame made him a target of murder attempt. Feminist activist Valerie Solanas had tried to get a script adapted to film by Warhol, but he refused to give it back and wanted to use her for other projects. She then shot him because she felt he had "too much influence over her" and accused him of trying to steal her script. Warhol survived through a speedy operation, but was never quite the same again. He had to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life and frequently suffered pain. A notorious hypochondriac, he was afraid of hospitals and doctor's visits. When he finally underwent an operation for a recurring gallbladder problem in 1987 everything went as planned, but he died in his sleep soon afterwards from post-operative complications. He was buried in his platinum wig, while his funeral was attended by countless Hollywood celebrities such as Lou Reed, John Cale, Bianca Jagger, Tom Wolfe, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Calvin Klein, Timothy Leary, Don Johnson, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, Liza Minnelli and Yoko Ono. Statues of Warhol can be found in Bratislava, Slovakia, and at Union Square in New York City. In 1988 he had an asteroid named after him.

Superman by Andy Warhol
Superman (1981)

Comics
Warhol remained interested in comics for most of his life. Apart from his 1960 painting of Dick Tracy, he also made paintings of Elzie Segar's 'Popeye' (1961), Ernie Bushmiller's 'Nancy' (1961), Walt Disney's 'Mickey Mouse' (1981) and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's 'Superman' (1960 and 1981).  In 1964 he directed a low-budget film named 'Batman Dracula', without permission of DC Comics, nor Bob Kane. It can be considered the first Batman "fan film" in history, as well as the first to show a more campy version of the franchise, two years before the TV series starring Adam West went on air. Together with singer Nico he also dressed up as Batman and Robin for a 1967 publicity picture. He also once said that Alfred E Neuman, the mascot of Mad Magazine designed by Norman Mingo, gave him "a love for people with big ears".

In 1972 and 1979 he met Hergé, whom he considered "more than a comics artist" and praised him as a huge influence on his work, "almost as much as Walt Disney". He specifically praised Hergé's "great political and satirical dimensions" and in 1977 immortalized his face - rather than Tintin's - in a series of silkscreen paintings. While Warhol never drew a comic strip himself, he did design a sequential work with a clear narrative on the cover of the Velvet Underground compilation album: 'Velvet Underground featuring Nico' (1970). The image shows a pair of female lips taking a sip out of a Coca Cola bottle through a straw. This action is shown in a series of 12 comic panel-like images.

Legacy & influence
Warhol remains an influence on many artists, including people like Guy Peellaert, Jacques Ristorcelli, Graziano Origa, Peter Haars, Jean Teulé, Gal, George Kuchar, Derek Boshier and Ismael Álvarez. Lou Reed and John Cale recorded a tribute album to Warhol in 1989, callled 'Songs For Drella'. On David Bowie's album 'Hunky Dory' (1971) one track is titled 'Andy Warhol'. Bowie would later portray the artist in Julian Schnabel's biopic film 'Basquiat' (1996). Warhol inspired no less than three graphic novels based on his life. The first one is 'Warhol Para Principantes' ('Warhol for Beginners', Ediciones Era Naciente, 2001) by Santiago Rial Ungaro and Liniers. Secondly, there is 'Becoming Andy Warhol' (2016) by Pierce Hargan and Nick Bertozzi. And in 2018 Dutch artist Typex published 'Andy, feitelijke fictie'.

Andy Warhol's fascination for the hollowness of celebrity culture was ahead of its time. Since the 1990s and 2000s reality-tv has transformed many talentless nobodies into grotesque media stars. An outburst occured of blogs, vlogs, selfies, personal websites, opinionated know-it-alls in online forums and social media. Everybody can now crave attention by posting texts, photos or videos online. Previously anonymous people collect likes and followers and feel obliged to inform everybody about their opinion and daily activities, regardless of how boring, amateuristic and pointless they actually are. And like Warhol predicted: most people's attention for these "celebrities" rarely lasts longer than a few minutes. In a way Warhol's art and own public persona seem more topical than ever before...

Warhol and Nico
Nico & Andy Warhol as Batman & Robin

www.warhol.org

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