“I usually accept people on the basis of their self-images, because their self-images have more to do with the way they think than their objective-images do.” —From The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975
You have to hand it to Andy Warhol. For a silly-looking guy reminiscent of Gollum in a mad-scientist wig, he had, and still has, the ability to ruffle feathers among folks who take art seriously. The seminal pop artist was an interesting character, no doubt, but was he a true artist? Such is the question that has occupied critics, aesthetes, and pretty much anyone who has an opinion about art since Warhol first surfaced in the 1950s.
Long before Andy emerged as the timid oddity of New York City counterculture, he was the timid oddity of Holmes Elementary School in Depression-era Pittsburgh. From his earliest interactions with his peers, Andrew Warhola, the son of Slovakian immigrants, was beset by hypersensitivity—a kid for whom socializing was an ordeal of the most terrifying variety. On his first day of kindergarten, he got slapped in the face by a little girl and, through tears, vowed to his mother that he would never return to school again.
But it was in 1936, when Andy entered the third grade, that he went from mere oddity to object of ridicule. His life was upended that year by a serious bout with chorea, a neurological condition thought to be a complication of scarlet fever. Undiagnosed at first, the disease covered him with reddish-brown blotches on his face, back, chest, arms, and hands. It also caused thinning hair and involuntary muscle movements. The eight-year-old Andy was tormented by his classmates, who would mock his shaking hands when he tried to write on the blackboard. The experiences pushed him further and further into isolation until finally, after a doctor identified the condition, his mother took him out of school altogether.
If ever there had been any question of Andy’s role as the delicate flower of the Warhola family, his disease put such doubts to rest. Far more squeamish than his two older brothers, Andy had long proven himself the sensitive one, the one who needed special care, and his mother, Julia, had gotten into the habit of coddling him to the extreme. But now, in his ailing state, Andy was at the mercy of this overprotective woman. Though well intentioned, Julia was a chronic doter, a maternal force of Pink Floydian scope, and her smothering presence inadvertently squeezed out any ounce of self-esteem he had left. “She made him feel insignificant,” a friend of Andy’s later noted. “She made him feel that he was the ugliest creature that God put on this earth.”
Bedridden for several weeks, he escaped into the fantasy world of movie magazines and the glamorous culture of 1930s screen stars. He lost himself in glossy photographs of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich; their beauty and poise, their airbrushed perfection, represented everything he was not. He steadied his hand tremors long enough to cut out the photos and make collages of his favorite stars. This was the world Andy dreamed of joining, and yet he already sensed that it was an elite club to which he could never really belong.
As Andy plodded through adolescence and into young adulthood, the blotches on his skin slowly began to fade, mostly clearing up by the time he graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949. His first taste of professional success came in the 1950s, in New York City, where he found work as a commercial illustrator for magazines and ad agencies. However, it was as a fine artist, in the 1960s, that Andy began to attract the attention of the art world with his silkscreen paintings of celebrities and household products. The images, smooth and machinelike in appearance, stood in proud contrast to the stringy and cluttered Abstract Expressionism that dominated New York’s art scene at the time. Pollock’s and de Kooning’s canvas-abusing tactics, with their gestural brushstrokes and antifigurative compositions, felt like old hat next to Andy’s fetish for mass-produced iconography, which challenged the very idea of what fine art could be.
However, if success as an artist validated Andy’s creative ambitions, it did little to quell his negative self-image. As an invalid, he had learned what it meant to be the thing society values least—a disposable human being. But as a pop artist, he would force society to rethink the value of things it once deemed disposable: Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo boxes, Coca-Cola bottles. His desire to give these objects equal face time with Marilyn, Elvis, and Liz Taylor sprung from a futile longing to be one of the beautiful people. Nevertheless, he remained determined, throughout his career, to dissolve the barriers between beauty and ugliness, and in the process he blurred the line between art and commerce.
There is still, of course, the matter of Warhol’s endless detractors, who insist that the man was nothing more than a champion of consumerism cloaked in pseudo-avant-gardery. To them, Andy’s nonchalant oddness opened the floodgates for a “do it because it’s weird” philosophy that still haunts the art world in the form of elephant dung, silent raves, and boxes of rocks. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue that a rough childhood is an acceptable excuse for making people sit through a five-hour movie about some guy sleeping, but then Warhol’s critics still miss an important point. Anyone can censure artistic pretense from behind The New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section, but only Andy Warhol, who had come face-to-face with his own grotesqueness, could have mocked that world from within its own pretentious circles, and decades after the fact, it’s easy to see that he was in on the joke. After looking at his work, one might very well come to the conclusion that a painting of a Coke bottle is no more a work of art than the syrupy drink it represents, but we’re at least forced to think about it. To Andy, that was the point. “A Coke is a Coke,” he once wrote. “No amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good.”
Adapted from Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world’s most creative minds, published by Adams Media.