By the mid-1950s, Andy’s career in commercial illustration was really taking off. But what he wanted more than ever was to become a famous artist.
Andy’s first illustration after leaving Pittsburgh for this article “Success is a job in New York,” now seems incredibly apt ’cause within a couple of years he’d become one of the city’s hottest commercial artists. His work had appeared in Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. He did record sleeves and book jackets and dressed windows for department stores. By the time he was 27, he was already making more than $100,000 a year, which was big money in the 50s. But he still dreamt of being a real artist.
For his work to be taken seriously as art rather than just illustrations, it had to be about something. It had to comment on the world around him and make people look at it differently. And the world that Andy saw was “boom-time America.” This poor kid who’d grown up during the 1)Great Depression was obsessed by the 50s consumer revolution: the 2)glossy commercials for shiny cars, the new supermarkets crammed with undreamt of varieties of food. He loved this mass-produced world of plenty, and, with his commercial background, Andy thought he could create art that reflected it.
Andy loved Coca-Cola that he thought “Why shouldn’t a bottle of Coke be a work of art?” And the next thing he did was so crucial in his development as an artist because he created this. And look, you can tell at once that suddenly here’s a much stronger, bolder style that’s all his own. It might not seem like much, but deciding to 3)depict a commercial object on the canvass, and deciding to present it in this very clean and graphic, very mechanical mode, well, it was a huge deal in the art world at the time. And this turned Andy into the champion of a new movement called “pop art.”
Artists have always painted things from their everyday lives, like hay carts, vases of flowers, bowls of fruit. What “pop art” said was that stuff from the commercial world and popular culture could also be art. And that’s how 32 cans of soup made onto the walls of America’s most important modern art museum. And these paintings are among the most famous modern art pictures in the world.
Now when they were first shown, most people thought they were a joke, but they really mark Andy’s coming of age as a pop painter. The bright colours, the crisp, mechanical technique, the presentation of a series of nearly identical images: they were all things that Andy would play with again and again. Like so much of his later work, these paintings were about capitalism; they’re about the consumer society. Really they’re about us.
Andy had begun a revolution, and what could now be classified as art would never be the same again.
Like it or not, we’ve Andy Warhol to thank for today’s artists, they’re obsessed with consumer culture and everyday objects. Now artists can take anything ordinary—cola cans, designer trainers, Japanese cartoons—stick ’em in a gallery and declare it art.
Today, nearly 50 years after his glory days as a pop artist, his work has moved out of the gallery and into our everyday lives. It’s so strong, so reproducible, that it appears everywhere. With Andy Warhol, high art became a brand. His art about modern consumer culture had become part of it.