Andrew Warhola, better known as Andy Warhol, was born on August 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his lifetime, Andy Warhol aroused much controversy and struggled for acceptance by the art world. However, the evidence of his achievement is that he is one of the rare artists, especially in the USA, to have had a whole museum devoted to their work.
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He produced works in a variety of media, cutting across many artistic disciplines, including: fashion illustration, painting, printmaking, sculpture, magazine publishing, filmmaking, photography, writing, and chronicling the underground art scene. He also generated, from his own life activities and the documentation of his relationships with friends, celebrities, and collaborators, what might be termed early performance art.
He is instantly associated with the movement called Pop Art, short for ‘popular’, and according to Osterwold, inextricably tied to Western industrialized society (Osterwold 4). Anecdotally, Warhol is often the only artist of this style that non-art-history students can name without prompting.
This style followed Abstract Expressionism in time and in approach, moving the art world farther away from the old idea that, for example, a painting is ‘about’ anything, or that works of art are special and one of a kind. Pop Art, and especially Warhol’s work, often featured mass-production techniques (such as silk-screening) and irreverent choice of subject matter (such as soup cans) (Bockris 210).
This movement thereby broke down even further the progressively unraveling classical ideas and limitations on what constitutes high art, or real art, or art of any kind. Besides being an innovative artist, Warhol was notable for his flamboyant apparent homosexuality in a much more repressive decade.
He was both a product of, and an element of change in, the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time characterized by a push to liberalize behavioral norms, in dress, hair styles, sexuality, and use of mind altering substances. His prodigious output and provocative personality and lifestyle still rouse controversy, and discussion (Columbia University).
Two works that reflect both his commentary on the state of society and his reaction to current events are Campbell’s soup cans 11 and the Flash-November 22, 1963. The Camphell’s Soup Cans 11, produced in 1962, depicts an array of 32 seemingly identical cans arranged in a grid of rows (Warhol). Though initially not recognized as actual art, the exhibition of the piece marked the beginning of a public debate that provided Warhol with much-needed publicity.
Although students and fans may argue endlessly over the significance of this work, it retains its ability to delight and surprise the viewer and trigger questions about what constitutes real art. The group of pieces titled Flash-November 22, 1963 was also a major work by Warhol. Warhol made this work at a time when the country was still obsessed by the media-hyped spectacle of Kennedy’s assassination. It includes an array of 11 screenshots, supposedly taken from the newswires from the time of his shooting and shortly thereafter.
Warhol was struck and disheartened by the four years of persistent media emphasis on the assassination. Thus, this piece of art work is highly relevant to events and trends of its time. It is also prescient in its acknowledgment of the increasing power of media to whip up public feeling, even very cynically and artificially. This paper will endeavor to describe these two pieces of art as art, and suggest meanings.
Camphell’s Soup Cans 11
Camphell’s Soup Cans 11 is a series of thirty two separate 20X16 inch canvases screen printed with synthetic polymer, and hand-stenciled with the names of the 1962 range of Campbell flavors. Thus, Warhol embodied several of what would become key characteristics of Pop Art: appropriation of a pre-existing image and well-known brand name, repetition by nearly mechanical means, removal from its usual context (the grocery shelf), and confusion between hand work and use of technology (silk screening plus hand stenciling).
Regarding appropriation of images, Warhol himself said,“Pop artists did images that anyone walking down the street would recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s pants, celebrities, refrigerators, Coke bottles.” (MOMA)
This use of recognizable commercial images simplified many of the choices that artists previously had to make. The basic elements of art were rather predetermined. In the case of Campbell’s Soup Cans 11, Warhol preserved the color values of the actual can labels, offering a sharp contrast between the red, white, and black. The line is very clear cut, and regular, moving up, across and down again around the can’s silhouette.
The shape is also pre-selected, and decidedly geometric rather than organic. The texture is difficult to tell without being in the same room, but if other silk-screened works are any indicator, then the texture, both visual and tactile, is likely to be smooth and unobtrusive. Warhol permits the mass of the cans to be suggested by the viewer’s familiarity with the apparent subject – a cylinder – as well as his competent use of perspective.
In elevating a humble soup can to the level of the Mona Lisa, Warhol was reflecting his own love of soup as a child, but he was also saying that art does not need to depict angels and kings to be art (Stinespring) (MOMA). There was also perhaps a critique of the world around him. John Stinespring characterizes the evolving criticism of Warhol as increasingly attributing to the artist a commentary on, “commercial, mass-produced, and somewhat sleazy nature of modern American society” (Stinespring).
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He also pioneered a way of being a brand himself as an artist, because he could produce many nearly identical copies of his art (Schroeder). Other variations on the soup can theme showed damaged or torn labels. These works could be interpreted as commentary on the superficialities of American society, or simply a joke. The painted label is coming off in some of these, showing only another surface underneath, not the soup itself (Stich 91).
Flash-November 22 1963
Flash-November 22 1963 is a part of a portfolio of images exploring the period from the Kennedy campaign to the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald (Telfair Museum) . Warhol used cropping, alteration of color, and massively increasing the contrast of news photographs (the news flash of the title) and posters (Moorhead 92) to suggest the ways he felt that the media manipulated the public (Stich 182). As such, their color palette is limited.
The example picked for this paper shows a high contrast shot of Jackie Kennedy grieving, duplicated twice. The color values are fairly intense. There are only two colors: purple evoking both royal garb (which seems appropriate for the residents of ‘Camelot’) as well as priestly vestments, and black evoking death and finality.
There is the shape of her face, suggested by the sketchiness of the grainy photograph enlarged many times. The duplication gives rhythm to the composition. The lines of Jackie’s face: her brows, her hairline, her chin, are all round and echo one another. The overall shape of her face is a rough oval, evoking classical ideals of feminine beauty.
However the high contrast of the screen prints make the organic forms of her features seem like marks on a map or mountains on the moon. Although, as with the Campbell’s Soup Cans, there is probably little texture from the silk screening, the illusion of texture arises from the graininess of the much-enlarged newsprint. When viewed as a woman’s face, the pictures give the impression of real-life mass, but if viewed as simply shapes of black on a purple background, they dissolve into abstraction.
This work, as with Warhol’s other images of celebrities, calls on the viewer to consider the nature of fame. Here is a beautiful woman grieving for her lost husband – the painting raises the question; is it worth it to have been the most powerful woman in the free world if she is robbed of her mate as a result of that power and fame?
These two works of Warhol’s embody several aspects of Pop Art, which was, “popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.” to use a description by Richard Hamilton (Biography.com). Warhol’s soup cans transform every package into a potential masterpiece. The nearly hieratic image of a weeping Jackie forces the viewer to recall the assassination differently, and is particularly significant right now at the 50th anniversary of that event.
Warhol is quoted as describing the movement that he helped to propel into the national consciousness as follows,” Once you ‘got’ pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought pop, you could never see America the same way again.” (Biography.com) These two pieces of art have helped this student ‘get’ Pop, and perhaps even ‘think’ Pop, and look at America and at art differently ever hereafter.
The art critics in Europe and eventually those in the USA accepted his substitution of advertising icons for those of the past, and his use of pre-existing images, among many other innovations, and art thereby moved beyond Abstract Expressionism decisively. (Fallon 18) (Danto xi).
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- The Norman Rockwell Museum was founded a year or so earlier, in 1993 (SOLOMON).