The Amalgamation of an Icon: Andy Warhol
The Amalgamation of an Icon: Andy Warhol
- Words Evan Malachosky
- Date May 3, 2018
The Pittsburgh mid-20th Century urban-industrial workforce was built on the desperation of European and Slavic immigrants. During the industry’s peak, Pittsburgh was the nation’s eighth largest city. Its distinct neighborhoods–proudly claimed by the city’s largest ethnic groups–became unique reinterpretations of the city itself. These ethnic groups’ traditions and relics remain a vital part of modern Pittsburgh. Amongst the steel, construction, and canned-goods employed neighborhoods were pockets of highbrow intelligence. Professors and students of two nearby universities–the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Institute of Technology, later renamed Carnegie Mellon University–began blurring the lines between immigrant residents and migrant intellectuals. It was here, in 1928, where Andy Warhol, born Andy Warhola, the fourth child of homemaker Julia and coal miner Ondrej Warhola, was born. It was here, in this standard, industrial-American city, that Andy Warhol grew up and studied commercial art.
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Prior to earning a Bachelors of Fine Art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol attended Schenley High School. Schenley’s bright blue chairs and limestone walls made this a beloved branch within the city’s public school system. It was a national standout during its planning stages and, when it opened 1916, was the first high-school in the United States to cost more than a million dollars to build.
Schenley was an expectedly-eccentric pre-celebrity social test for Warhol. A circumstantial outcast, at just 13 he was bedridden with a nervous system disease that left his limbs shaky and his skin blotchy. Missing class and teen-life, Warhol generally kept to himself—bouncing from the hospital to home to hospital again. During these reclusive years, his art skills and infatuation with celebrity were his main focus. Resisting any inclination to leave home for a far-flung college, he chose to attend the technical institute just a neighborhood away to study art. This intersection between industrial-America and fine art became the primary inspiration for most of his work.
Following graduation, Warhol moved to New York City and began a career in magazine illustration and advertorial work. His first gig was drawing shoes for Glamour. Through his unprecedented style, Warhol gave a shoe personality, story, and place in American life. His work as an advert-artist landed him a role as lead designer for women’s shoe brand Israel Miller, a job he held throughout the ‘50s. During his off-time, Warhol learned screen-printing techniques from Max Arthur Cohn, which allowed Warhol to develop with his repetitive, interpretive style. As his work with Israel Miller began to limit his newfound passion, he left and began to freelance for RCA Records, Harper’s Bazaar, NBC, Tiffany & Co., and Vogue. But, it wasn’t until the early ‘60s that Warhol began showing art. Although his advertisements had earned him critical acclaim from ad-execs and the art-community alike, he wasn’t quite yet a household name.
Inspired by both his hometown and his adopted home’s industrial roots, Warhol developed the idea of the “Factory”—a space where celebrities, artists, and writers co-existed. If you were cool enough, you went to the Factory. If you were lucky enough, Warhol painted you. Quickly transforming into the city’s coolest hangout, the Factory transported Warhol into the upper echelons of the art world. Considered art’s most interesting and productive man, his dyed gray hair and his clear frame glasses became synonymous with ‘60s alt-style. His work, because of its deliberately-quick production rate, began piling up. He painted “iconic American images”—Campbell’s Soup cans, electric chairs, mushroom clouds, Coke cans, currency symbols, civil rights images, and celebrities. Despite how uniquely Warholian his work was, it was as much a reflection of current times as it was Warhol’s individuality.
Outside from his artistic contributions, it was his celebrity portraits, and friendships, which propelled him to national stardom. His antics and boundary-pushing shows demanded audiences to question what art truly is. Demarcated by stencils and copper canvases during the initial printmaking era, Warhol demonstrated his now awe-inducing productivity. During this time, his celebrity reached new heights. He could whimsically pull images from everyday American life and turn them into fantastic art. His art was everywhere—he was everywhere. Warhol frequented headlines and appeared at every high-profile event. He stylishly graced the edges and backgrounds of paparazzi-snagged photos. His practicality in modern spaces began as a rebellion against the standard. The “avant-garde” world that Warhol built was founded upon individuality, expression, and intelligence.
As famous as Warhol himself was his distinct look. Chunky turtlenecks, striped long-sleeve shirts, shrunken ivy suiting and loose white button-up shirts were in constant rotation. Almost always in loafers, Warhol preferred the finer things, which inevitably led him to Berluti, who to this day make some of the finest—and most expensive—shoes in the world. Upon receiving his initial order in 1962, a classic loafer, Olga Berluti opted to go a different route. Fascinated by Warhol, the founder’s grandaughter handmade a pair uniquely for Warhol. She reconstructed the shoe from the ground up, a streamlined modernized version befitting the art maverick. Nicknamed “The Andy,” the burnished loafer became Warhol’s footwear of choice, and are still a core part of the Beruti offering to this day.
Like his loafers, Warhol preferred consistency. Never without his trademark Moscot lenses, the artist alternated between a black on black pair and a clear lucite version. The shape is perhaps as iconic as his dyed gray hair and has inspired countless imitations, from Warby Parker to Celine. With the style’s resurgence following numerous knock-offs and reinterpretations, Moscot reintroduced the Miltzen some years ago, and the silhouette is a continual best-seller.
Warhol’s fashion ambitions went beyond his own wardrobe. Some of his prints wound up on clothing, in particular, his infamous Campbell's Soup can. In 1962, Warhol began printing the image on women’s dresses, which quickly found their way on the backs of socialites and “it” girls the city over. An exclusive status symbol, the dresses’ success did not go unnoticed with Campbell’s itself realizing its newfound popularity and attempting to capitalize. The company began selling the “Souper Dress”—a printed-on-paper version of Warhol’s famous dress. The $1 dresses sold instantly.
In 1968, Warhol’s ubiquity became too much for some to bear. Radical activist Valerie Solanas nearly killed the artist at the Factory during a famous episode. Although High-brow peers had been hanging out at the Factory for years, attendance skyrocketed in the late ‘60s. A frequent guest and friend, Solanas confessed that Warhol “had too much control over [her] life” which prompted her to shoot him.
Following 18 months rest, 1970 proved Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” weren’t over. Warhol painted his famous Flower Series and began rounding up clients. He coasted through the rest of the decade doing commission work for celebrities, politicians, and brands and kept his prominent role amongst New York City’s nightlife scene. He would frequent clubs and parties with beautiful women and art openings with the most bountiful of characters; he kept Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Debbie Harry, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in close company—to name a few of his most famous friends.
The ‘80s marked the beginning of Warhol’s most curatorial years. He used Interview—the magazine he founded in the mid-70’s—as an outlet to introduce the world to his ever-expanding cohort, most notably renegade street-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and The Velvet Underground. Warhol was pivotal in Basquiat’s transition from street to fine art and, with his co-sign of Velvet Underground, Warhol was recognized as one of America’s most refined tastemakers.
Warhol was front and center in 1986 when Jean-Michel Basquiat walked in the Spring/Summer 1997 Comme des Garçons Homme Plus show. He attended all of Basquiat’s openings and press-events and the two collaborated to both their benefit. Their work together, which spanned photography, painting, and collage, is legendary in both its stature and cultural relevance.
Not limited to artists and musicians, Warhol’s posse was diverse and expansive. Apart from close friends Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Julian Schnabel, Warhol also had the foresight to hire journalist Glenn O’Brien to work as an editor at Interview. Quickly parlaying a job into a lifelong friendship, O’Brien became close with Warhol. Alongside Haring, Basquiat and Schnabel, the two were central figures in the “downtown generation,” and O’Brien even wrote a film loosely based on their lives. Only through working with Warhol was O’Brien able to launch his own tv show, TV Party!, and eventually become GQ’s “Style Guy,” a position he held for a long stretch of his career.
Despite his enigmatic style, legendary friendships and unprecedented eye for talent, nearly twenty-five years after he entered the art scene, Warhol’s style began to feel stale to critics and collectors alike. He was labeled as “commercial” and “superficial.” The last portion of his oeuvre lacked the impact of his earlier works, his fame and cultural influence overshadowing his craft. Warhol passed away in February of 1987. He was buried alongside his parents—in his famous Moscot glasses, a cashmere jacket, and a platinum wig.
Immediately following his death, Warhol’s art suddenly felt relevant—as with any artist who passes away, considering the suddenly-finite status of their work. Still, the rebirth was short-lived, and within five years collectors and critics shunned both Warhol and his contemporaries alike. By the ‘90s, Warhol was all but forgotten. When 16 of his paintings were set for auction in 1993, 14 of them failed to find a buyer. Then suddenly in 2008, everything changed. A Roman collector sold a Warhol piece from their private collection, titled “Eight Elvises,” for a jaw-dropping $100 million.
Again, Warhol caught the public’s eye. His influence once again began to permeate all facets of culture—menswear included. The first landmark collaboration came in 2008, when Levi’s, Damien Hirst, and Swarovski collaborated on a Warhol-inspired crystal-skull patterned pair of jeans that opened the floodgate for endless Warhol inspired-creations, from homage to straight-up collaoborations with the Andy Warhol Foundation.
As with most New York cultural icons, Supreme could not resist, and as part of their Spring/Summer 2012 offering released a “Campbell’s Soup Can” capsule collection, a clear homage to the late downtown legend. While not an official Warhol collab, the various pieces, featuring a repeating graphic across trucker hats, tees, and three vans iterations, captured the commercial nature of Warhol’s work and managed to do what both Supreme and Warhol do best—provide an in-depth look at the American psyche.
In April of 2013, thirty years after Warhol attended the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus runway show, the label released a pair of Andy Warhol collaborative shirts. Utilizing Warhols “Cow 12”, which were emblazoned across the shirts, Kawakubo keyed in to a pivotal moment in Warhol’s career. The beginning of Warhol’s protest against painting, “Cow 12” was the turning point where Warhol attempted to prove printmaking was a legitimate art form. A constant provocateur, Kawakubo found the inflection point between her and Warhol’s work—and unyielding notion to question the status quo. The capsule was such a resounding success that CDG chose to work with the foundation again, releasing a fragrance earlier this year.
With Warhol’s impact on American pop-culture, it’s no surprise how the most emblematic U.S. labels have chosen to feature his work. Take Converse, who released a trio of All Stars featuring the Campbell’s soup can—unlike Supreme, they were able to secure the rights to the original images. Like Converse, countless other American stalwarts have celebrated Warhol’s work, from the aforementioned Levi’s to Burton and even the Museum of Modern Art itself. When Supreme released a collection featuring the Warhol's famed portrait of Muhammad Ali, collaborations hit a fever pitch.
While not American, the most obvious Warhol collaborator is none other than Uniqlo, who has been utilizing various prints as a part of its “UT” imprint. A seasonal staple, the collections have featured everything from self-portraits to the Velvet Underground banana.
On the runway, Warhol’s work has made numerous appearances, particularly in the past few years. An American fashion icon if there ever was one, Tom Ford clearly channeled Warhol in his Spring/Summer 2016 menswear collection, with models clad in chunky turtleneck’s and unmistakenly Warholian square glasses frames. That same season, Dries van Noten screen-printed Warhol’s polaroid-portraits onto jackets, T-shirts, and blazers. A nod to both Van Noten’s penchant for quirky patterns and fondness for Warhol’s keen ability to create elaborate prints.
Still, the most notable recent runway appearance—and arguably collaboration at large—debuted last year, when Raf Simons took over creative control at Calvin Klein. Under Simons direction, Calvin Klein formed a partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for a unique, and indefinite, series of collections. Simons, a recent Belgian immigrant, arrived in America amidst a period of vast political turmoil. Rather than focus on the negativity surrounding him, he rather embraced classic, somewhat bizarre American tropes, from plastic couch covers to knit blankets. Combined with his long-standing love affair with modern art, tapping American pop-culture’s most iconic figure was the logical next step. The ensuing collaboration has ranged from ad campaigns featuring Warhol canvases as backdrops to a Spring/Summer 2018 collection with different Warhol graphics screen-printed (naturally) on everything from denim jackets to bandanas and underwear.
At this point, Warhol’s impact on the culture at large is unquestionable. Apart from countless appearances in both streetwear and high fashion, his productivity, belief in repetition, and ability to navigate countless mediums have served as inspiration for generations worth of creatives. His inimitable style—both personal and artistic—are still at the forefront of modern culture. An American icon in every sense of the world, Warhol will undoubtedly influence fashion, art, and culture for decades to come. It seems that his fifteen minutes are far from over.