The British Museum’s list of 15 things you should know about Andy Warhol
1. He was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of working-class immigrants from Czechoslovakia.
He changed his name to Warhol about the time he graduated in pictorial design from Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, in 1949.
2. Before he became a famous artist, he had a successful career as a commercial graphic designer.
Warhol moved to New York in 1949 and during the 1950s he worked for fashion magazines, Manhattan department stores and for I Miller, a women’s shoe company.
3. He coined the widely used expression: ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.
The expression was inspired by Andy Warhol’s words ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’, which appeared in the programme for a 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm, Sweden.
4. In 1962 Warhol burst on to the New York art scene with his serial images of America.
He used mass advertising, the news media and the movies as inspiration. Emulating the method of a mass-production line, Warhol created a stream of paintings and prints of Campbell’s soup cans, horrific car crashes, Coca-Colas, Elvis Presleys and Marilyn Monroes (see below for more of her…). His unashamed use of pop culture references became a key element in the movement that became known as ‘pop art’.
5. His studio was called The Factory – a reference to the mass-produced nature of his artworks.
The Factory was a well-known gathering place that brought together distinguished intellectuals, drag queens, playwrights, Bohemian street people, Hollywood celebrities, and wealthy patrons. The Factory was, in fact, located in three different places in New York City between 1962 and 1984. The name was apt – Warhol made more than 400 print editions, almost all screenprints, with various publishers throughout his life.
6. He used press and publicity photos as source material in his work.
The assassination of President John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963 shocked America and the world, and the event replayed continuously on television and in the press. In 1963/64, Warhol began his series of screenprinted, multiple-imaged paintings of the president’s widow, Jackie Kennedy, using pictures by Fred Ward from Life magazine (6 December 1963).
The colour screenprint Jackie II, made in 1966, is on show in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present. In it, Warhol presents the veiled widow isolated in her bereavement in front of the world’s press. The coarse dots of the news photo are enlarged by photoscreenprinting to the point that her image appears to break up. The repetition of Jackie in black against a flat, metallic purple surface reinforces the subject’s tragic dimension.
7. His most expensive work sold to date fetched $105.4 million at auction in 2013.
The painting in question, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), shows a twisted body in the wreckage of a car crash, part of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, painted in 1963.
8. His Marilyn Monroe diptych was voted one of the most influential works of modern art.
One of the most recognisable images in the world, Warhol’s Marilyn series remains sensational after five decades. He made the series of 10 individual screenprints, shown here being installed into our American Dream exhibition, in 1967. Warhol used a cropped and enlarged publicity still as the source image for this work, taken by photographer Gene Kornman for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara. Behind the glamour and fame of the Marilyn series lay tragedy. Recently divorced from playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn had taken her own life with a drug overdose in August 1962. Warhol’s depiction of the alluring screen goddess became a memorial to a fallen idol.
9. Apart from creating graphic art, he also made more than 60 films, created the fashion magazine Interview, and wrote several books.
He also created around 500 ‘screen test’ portraits of visitors to the Factory – these were black-and-white short films.
10. He put the ‘pop’ into pop art – in more ways than one.
Although not musical himself, he was credited as the producer of The Velvet Underground and Nico’s eponymous first album, for which he designed the iconic banana cover. He also designed The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album (a close-up shot of a model wearing jeans, complete with zip fly) and even hosted a programme on MTV between 1985 and 1987 called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes. He features in the songs ‘Andy Warhol’ (on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory) and ‘Andy’s Chest’ (on Lou Reed’s Transformer – inspired by the 1968 attempt on the artist’s life).
11. Warhol believed that his depiction of President Nixon led to him being investigated by the IRS.
For the 1972 presidential election Warhol made this print as a fundraiser in support of the Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern. Warhol pictured Richard Nixon, McGovern’s Republican opponent, with a livid green face, yellow lips and demonic orange eyes.
Warhol lifted the source image from a photo of the President and his wife on the front cover of Newsweek. He transferred the green colour of Mrs Nixon’s outfit to her husband’s face.
Warhol later complained that the print had so enraged Nixon that he was placed under continuous scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for tax audits, prompting him to begin his now-famous diaries as a daily log of expenditure.
12. He’s not all about pop culture and witty sayings – there’s a serious message in some of his works
This print uses a photograph of the riots that began in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of the civil rights movement. First published in Life magazine on 17 May 1963, the photo had been taken by press photographer Charles Moore two weeks earlier. It was the first time Warhol appropriated a current news photograph in his printmaking. He instructed the screenprinter to heighten the contrast between black and white in order to reinforce the message about race relations.
13. He considered all of life – and death – as a suitable subject for his art.
Warhol began to produce his screenprinted Electric Chair paintings in 1963, the year of the State of New York’s last execution by electric chair. He used a press service photo (published 13 January 1953) of the electric chair at the infamous Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York, as his source image. The empty chair sits in the chilling stillness of the chamber of death.
Warhol returned to the electric chair image in 1971 for a set of prints, which will be on display in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present. He repeated the source image he had used for his earlier screenprinted canvases. In these prints, however, the electric chair is positioned more prominently by cropping the source image. This has the effect of enlarging the chair, reducing the sense of being in an enclosed room. In this respect the prints are closer to his so-called Big Electric Chair paintings of 1967. The serial presentation of ten identical images in both positive and negative iterations and in different colour combinations has a hallucinatory, hypnotic effect on the viewer.
14. 2017 marks 30 years since his death.
He died on 22 February 1987 from a sudden post-operative cardiac arrhythmia following gall bladder surgery. He was just 58.
15. There is an Andy Warhol Museum in his native city – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single artist.
You can see a selection of Andy Warhol’s prints – alongside prints by over 70 other artists – in the special exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present (9 March – 18 June 2017).
Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s with American Dream: pop to the present, the fascinating book published to accompany the exhibition available in the Museum shops and online.
You can also buy a range of Warhol-inspired products in our online shop.