The Myth and The Mask of Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol posing in his studio, The Factory

After the sun has set and the bustling streets of Manhattan have been vacated by businessmen and secretaries, a group gathers underneath the large, black marquee of Studio 54. Steve Rubell welcomes guests into the coveted nightclub, greeting each one with a smile. Bright lights illuminate faces in the crowd. Men and women alike wearing ornate faces and dressed in extravagant outfits. This is 1970s New York City.

 

One person stands out among the crowd. A small, smartly-dressed man with a platinum wig steps out of a cab and approaches the door. Without a second glance, Andy Warhol is welcomed into the scene. He admires all the beautiful people that look right at home in the club. He admires the boys who wear knee-high socks and gym shorts while running around bussing tables.

 

Warhol chats with guests and drinks. He listens to the band play and loses himself into the evening. A wild Saturday night turns into a regretful Sunday morning as Warhol finds himself back home at 6:30 a.m. and quickly falls asleep. The tunes and songs of the night before drift in and out of his mind.

I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Frank Sinatra, ‘New York, New York’

Andy Warhol posing by a mirror next to a skull

Andy Warhol’s dream may not have initially been to end up in New York City, but it was certainly where he ended up belonging. Warhol was born in 1928 and grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he didn’t quite fit in due to a variety of factors.

 

As a child, Warhol had a neurological disorder that often kept him home from school. He also experienced a constant sense of body dysmorphia, and the insecurities he felt about the way he looked would stay with him for much of his adult life.

 

Warhol graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1945. Afterwards, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in the commercial arts. During this time, Warhol began experimenting with different artistic styles and incorporating themes of sexuality and identity into his pieces.

 

In the 1960s, the American pop-art movement was on the rise and Warhol was the frontrunner. Warhol’s earliest pop-art works include hand-painted depictions of commercial products and celebrity portraits.

 

Early in his career, however, he switched styles and created some of his most noteworthy pieces using a new silkscreen printing style. This new style involved the creation of a picture by pushing ink onto a canvas through a screen, thereby creating nearly identical images of the same picture. The works he created in this new style include his iconic Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans paintings. Warhol quickly rose into stardom, and it was around this time that he began building his public persona.

Andy Warhol polaroid
Courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol polaroid with skull
Courtesy of Gagosian

The Marilyn Diptych painting embodies the imperfections that occur with the silkscreen printing process. The colored portraits were stenciled over with six colors, each with a different variation in pigment. This is contrasted by the black and white portraits that highlight the technical aspects of screen-printing and display the flaws and mistakes that are part of the process.

Quite possibly his most iconic piece, “Campbell’s Soup Cans” truly reflects Warhol’s life and career before becoming an artist. The symbology of the cans has roots in his early life when he ate Campbell’s soup for lunch every day for about 20 years. Even his father’s favorite lunch was Campbell’s tomato soup. The imagery also has connections to Warhol’s career as a highly successful commercial illustrator. Warhol has even said that the Campbell’s soup cans were his favorite works and that he “should have just done [them] and kept on doing them.”

 

After a near-fatal shooting in 1968, Warhol was left physically and emotionally scarred. The incident altered both his working and personal life as well as exacerbated insecurities that Warhol had already felt toward himself and his appearance.

 

Warhol began focusing heavily on portrait painting during the period after the shooting. This time became “like life after death for him,” says Jessica Beck, curator of The Andy Warhol Museum. “There is a building up of his confidence with all of the portraits… It’s almost like he’s remembering how to paint again through the portraits.”

 

However, Warhol’s greatest artistic creation was by far himself. His carefully curated look included his iconic platinum wig, cosmetics, and even plastic surgery to change the shape of his nose. Much of the way he presented himself was rooted in his own insecurities and his belief that he was unattractive. He had a highly developed character that he would perform during interviews and whenever he was caught in the public eye.

 

He kept much of his personal life to himself, which led to many rumors about him being circulated. The mysteries surrounding “the myth of Andy Warhol” have carried on even after his death.

Campbell
Courtesy of MoMA

He had long-lived insecurities about his appearance which prevented him from being completely vulnerable with people. This inability to completely open up and be affectionate or attentive with his partners is ultimately what led to the end of arguably his most impactful relationship.

 

Warhol was not always able to participate fluidly in romantic interactions or relations due to many of his own personal insecurities. Colacello remembers Warhol as regarding others’ relationships very cynically. He says, “When you told Andy two people were getting married, he said ‘Oh, is he gay? Is this a cover-up?’ I’d say ‘No, Andy.’” A huge cause of this cynicism was that Warhol couldn’t enjoy traditional or typical relationships himself because of who he was.

 

Warhol was an extremely troubled individual. The irony of his art is that he was able to see beauty in some of the most ordinary things like a bottle of Coca-Cola or a Campbell’s soup can. But Warhol was unable to see beauty in himself.He held himself to a certain standard of perfection that simply was not achievable and, despite his accomplishments, he never seemed satisfied or at peace with his work.

 

Warhol is one of, if not the most, influential artist of his generation. His lasting impact on the world changed not only how we perceive art but also fame and celebrity status. Warhol himself said that someday in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. With the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Warhol’s prediction has proved to be true.

Andy Warhol filming
Courtesy of Revolver Gallery

Warhol was obsessed with the idea of fame and what could be achieved through utilizing it in the right way. Depicting icons like Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe in his artwork is reflective of his heavy focus on A-list celebrities. Warhol also helped create many celebrities through his movies and television shows. He incorporated his friends and staff into his projects and preserved their celebrity status in his art.

 

Warhol knew how to paint himself (no pun intended) as the kind of person he wanted to be perceived as and not as the person he actually was. He understood how media and news operated and he knew how to perfectly curate comments about himself in order for them to fit the character he had created.

 

Through Warhol’s artwork, we can see his opinions, beliefs, values, and even state of mind at times. His focus on money, fame, identity, self-image, and legacy all contribute to his artwork and who he was as a person.

Warhol Museum
Courtesy of Sotheby's

On the surface, Warhol seemed to be living the glamorous life of a New York City artist. However, Warhol clearly experienced some level of mental illnesses that heavily impacted his quality of life. Warhol once said, “I am in a strange period. I’ve got these desperate feelings. And nothing means anything.” Warhol experienced feelings of depression and doubt in himself constantly throughout his career, but rarely mentioned them to anyone in order to keep up appearances.

 

Warhol’s vanity is often what kept him from being able to accept himself for who he was and participate in conventional society. He was always striving for something more, something better. And sadly, it seems that he never was truly able to achieve it. He accomplished so much in his life, but was too consumed with the ideas of beauty and legacy to stop and just experience the beauty of life.

 

Perhaps one of Warhol’s biggest drives was the idea of preservation. He spent much of his career preserving people’s likenesses through film, photography, and portrait painting. Warhol even attempted to preserve his own likeness through the creation of a robot that would look and sound like him. Despite this project not reaching total completion, Warhol was certainly able to preserve his legacy through other means.

 

Warhol’s work defined the American pop-art movement and heavily influenced the art world as a whole. He was responsible for breaking boundaries between high-brow and low-brow art and united many different styles to create something extraordinarily unique.

 

From film and TV to screen-printing and painting to writing and producing, Warhol has an extensive catalog that influenced an entire generation of people. He understood how to make an impact and his artwork certainly has left him with an enormous legacy.

Warhol once said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Warhol certainly changed things. He seamlessly blended various artistic styles, changed the way we interpret art and fame, and paved the way for future artists to make as much of an impact as he did.

Despite being somewhat a man of myth, at the core, Warhol was deeply human. He had flaws and insecurities, but he managed to create a world entirely his own and defined it how he pleased. There is a lot to learn from a man as mysterious and enigmatic as Andy Warhol.

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