Memoir XI: The Cool Kid

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all of these memoirs is to educate. Some of the content in this memoir contains some profanity.

As a child, I never really considered myself a cool kid. In primary school, I was the big kid with size 8 feet who followed the rules. I wasn’t a trouble maker to that extent. Secondary school, I was the only person from my primary school. So making friends was tough Everyone came from the same primary school, so fitting into established friendship groups was hard. At one point, I even wanted to transfer. But with a West African parent, I knew I had no chance in hell, so I had to slug it out. However, by year 9, I came into my own; I was this ignorant, obnoxious but smart teen.

By year 10 I was a social butterfly, and my head was everywhere. In year 11, I knew that year was my swansong. I knew that chapter of my life was coming to an end.

I remember GCSE result’s day; I felt excited because here I was, onto the next adventure. But I knew I wasn’t doing this alone, I had a team, a squad.

Sixth form was one big wacky adventure from start to finish. When you are one out of 20 or so boys in an all-girls school, things can get a bit chaotic, and I would be lying in this memoir if I didn’t say that at that point to an extent I was “the cool kid”. I know for a fact Present-day me and sixth form me would hate each other And I think this period of my life paralleled with Andy Warhol’s, we had this uncaged ego and this thirst for life. I wasn’t this teenager who dreamed of being an artist at the age of 17 but socially… we came from nothing and made a name for ourselves. We were the cool kids in our environment.

Born Andrew Warhola on August 6th, 1928 to both Ondrej and Julia Warhola. Warhol was the last child of four. His parents emigrated from Slovakia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and unfortunately before they could emigrate their firstborn died.

Andy was born a year before The Great Depression and it was this coupled with his parents coming with nothing that made his childhood so difficult. Food was scarce, and the family barely had any money. Warhol even had to share a room with his siblings.

Warhol had a very strong relationship with his mother growing up. She was devoted to him, she would give him comics and reward him with chocolate when he finished a colouring book or made a collage. She knew he had talent and she nurtured it; the kitchen was transformed into his little “art studio”.

Around the age of 8, Warhol contracted chorea – a rare nervous disorder and for ten weeks he was bed-bound. Although it was not fatal to his life, the disease had such a large impact on his body; his skin was more sensitive to touch, he developed skin problems and his hair lost pigments. Even in his adolescent years, he still suffered from these effects.

After Warhol recovered, he returned to school but on his first day back his symptoms returned and he was bed-bound again. Besides the physical effects, the disease had an impact on his confidence.

At 14, Warhol’s father died, the death had a profound effect on him. His father’s body was placed in the family’s living room for three days before its burial and Warhol refused to go near it. He hid in his bedroom. Moreover, his father thought beyond his death and left the family with a large sum of money and he specifically made it clear that he wanted that money to go towards his children’s education. As a family, they decided that the child who could use the money effectively was Warhol.

After finishing high school, Warhol went on to attend Carnegie Institute of Technology, in 1945. While there, he studied Painting and Design; Warhol discovered the blotted line technique at Carnegie, and in my opinion, the blotted line technique underpins Warhol’s entire career because he would expand upon this technique and it would lead him to discover silkscreen printing.

However, Warhol did not have an easy journey in Carnegie, he was almost expelled in his first year due to his poor performance. But he was lucky, as his professor felt sorry for him and allowed the artist to prove himself during summer school.

As Warhol progressed through college his popularity grew along with his individualism. Professors were annoyed by the artist’s disobedience to conform. Nonetheless, the artist graduated and in the summer of 1949, just a week after graduating, Warhol and his classmate boarded an overnight train to New York in search of success.

While in New York, Warhol made a living as a commercial illustrator. He would always carry his work. Fun Fact: While working for a company, Warhol was still using the surname “Warhola”. However, his surname was misspelt on a piece of illustration as “Warhol”, he did not correct this mistake but Instead used it and went by the name “Andy Warhol”

Warhol was very self-conscious and quiet. He wanted to change that, so he created a new persona. As stated before, chorea affected his skin, nose and hair. To overcome this, Warhol sanded his skin, reconstructed his nose and bought a wig.

In the Spring of 1952, Warhol’s mother came to New York to live with him and the two reached an arrangement. She could stay but she had to take care of the apartment while Andy would be at work. This arrangement was beneficial to Warhol in two aspects, he would have his mother around and he was free to work long hours.

By the mid-1950s Warhol’s career as an illustrator was taking off and this continued throughout 1950s. Warhol’s illustrations reached the likes of Glamour and Vogue.

When it came to his illustrations, Warhol used the blotted-line technique and in total, he produced around 1000 illustrations. One example was Instrument with Hands (created 1957). To create such an illustration, you would need two pieces of paper with one being the absorbent paper. On the other paper, you would sketch your image. After you were finished, you would apply the absorbent paper. Next, you would press the two papers together and after a couple of minutes, you would remove the absorbent paper. What you would have on the absorbent paper was your final image with a “blotted-line”. Like all of Warhol’s illustrations, they were colourful and vibrant. One of Warhol’s favourite cafés in the 1950s was Serendipity and they would hang his illustrations. If we fast forward to today, the impact of the blotted line technique can still be seen; for example, in book illustrations such as Royal Dahl’s books.

Instrument with Hands (created 1957) [Ink and Dye on paper on board 320 × 382 mm]Instruments with Hands 1957

But all this success as an illustrator was not enough for Warhol, he wanted more. He wanted to make a transition into fine art, and he was persistent. Warhol would take his portfolio of work to multiple galleries dotted across New York. But in the 1950s none were interested in his work; they were described as “too commercial”.

The art world in the 1950s was going through significant changes, the capital of art was shifting from Paris to New York. To add to that, abstract expressionism was what galleries and collectors were after. There was no room for anything commercial. Instead, an artist’s work had to be symbolic of their soul and experience within society.

But something changed at the end of the 1950s. With the emergence of new artists and new dealers, Warhol was able to enter the fine art world and begin his network.

While walking through a supermarket, Warhol had a “eureka” moment and after seeing the soup that he ate as a child which was Campbell’s soup. He decided to print the 32 varieties of Campbell’s soup and in 1962 he had his first major solo exhibition at Ferus Gallery.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (painted 1962) are the most iconic pieces of art within the 20th Century. In a time in which Pollock and Rothko were kings, Warhol took a wrecking ball to New York’s art scene.

What is so powerful about these pieces is its commentary on mass production and modern consumerism. For the first time in history, fast-moving consumer goods were mass-produced in large quantities and this was unprecedented for the 1950s.

Looking at the 32 pieces, they are not visually complex. It is 32 pieces based on an everyday item that people consume. I think what is interesting about the pieces are the 32 flavours and perhaps Warhol is trying to shine a light on this new world being created in the 1950s. Warhol is telling us, with such variety brings an industry that is tailored to the individual.

Campbell’s Soup Cans (painted 1962) [Screenprint on Canvas {Each Canvas} 51 cm × 41 cm]Campbell's Soup Cans 1962

With regards to the exhibition, it was met with so much animosity. People thought that Warhol was simply taking the pi** out of art. This would only continue as Warhol would go on to have a show with Brillo boxes. The show was described as something out of a supermarket, and again, people questioned how serious Warhol was. This would only be made worse as the artist would be so aloof during interviews.

But he utilised this hostility, he knew he had unleashed a storm and continued to do this with pieces such as Green Coca-Cola Bottles (painted 1962).

In Green Coca-Cola Bottles, we can see 112 empty green glass Coke bottles in 7 rows of 16. What is so key about this piece is its repetition, we see a variety of different bottles with subtle differences.  Just like Campbell’s Soup Cans, this piece too delves into modern consumerism.

As Warhol famously states, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”. Even with this statement being over 50 years old, it still rings true.

If we look at a pair of Jordans, a 10-year old kid in Seattle owns something that was worn and inspired by Michael Jordon. It is this very idea of ownership that allows us to be that much closer to certain individuals. When we see a celebrity drink, eat or wear a certain item that is easily accessible to us, we feel a sense of validation. We feel cooler.

Green Coca-Cola Bottles (painted 1962) [Screenprint on Canvas 210 × 145 cm]Green Coca Cola Bottles 1962

By the early 1960s, Warhol becomes accustomed to silkscreen printing. Silkscreen printing was a technique that was synonymous for producing wallpaper. But with the help of Gerard Malanga, Warhol studies this technique and uses it to achieve his vision of making art that is quick and unpredictable.

In 1963, Warhol began to turn his attention to film, and he would create unusual films. Some of which would be 8 hours long with people sleeping. The films were bizarre but gained a vast amount of attention. His films starred the people around him and with each release, those who took part would become famous.  What Warhol did was make the blueprint for what we call reality tv. From Big Brother to Keeping Up with the Kardashians to The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the stars of these shows were everyday people going about their daily business, doing mundane tasks but they are being filmed! Warhol was telling the world at that time that he could make anybody famous, and all he had to do was point a camera at them.

January 1964 was the birth of The Factory. The factory was Warhol’s studio, the insides were covered with silver foil and this effect amazed Warhol – it made flash photography and filming more interesting.

The factory was a perfect place for Warhol, as he could create art and films. It was a place in which people could express themselves freely and just have a good time. While people were indulging in drugs and partying, Warhol would have his camera out; filming and taking pictures of the chaos. The factory attracted a variety of people, some with destructive personalities which we will discuss later. All these strange and eccentric people were Warhol’s muse.

1965, Warhol announces he is retiring from art. He states he wants to focus on other ventures. He manages the band, Velvet Underground and does their cover art for their debut album in 1967, “The Velvet Underground & Nico”.

In the 1960s, Warhol covered a range of themes, one of them was death. In 1967, Warhol produced a series exploring the icon, Marylin Monroe and this would give him incredible notoriety.

The story of Marilyn Monroe is very tragic, the actress died on August 5th 1962, at just the age of 36 from a drug overdose. Today, Marilyn Monroe is revered as a cultural icon. During her career, her films grossed more than $200 million. With all this fame and fortune, the death of Marilyn Monroe came as a sudden shock to the world.

Warhol created the piece by obtaining a black-and-white photo from the 1953 film, Niagara. What is so fascinating about the different pieces was that Warhol showed Marilyn’s different emotions by using different colours. By doing this, Warhol allowed the viewer to see the many layers that made up the late actress. For years, Marilyn lived under this false persona but by Warhol creating these different pieces; he allowed for an honest insight into the actress’ humanity. It is through repetition that Warhol allowed for something new to be discussed, the repetition through silkscreen printing allowed for a new perspective. While alive, Marilyn’s image was plastered across newspapers and magazines, and it was this constant repetition that stopped people from seeing who she was beyond the movies. It was this repetition by the media that caged her humanity, in the words of Warhol, “repetition adds up to reputation”.

Marilyn {Marilyn Monroe} (painted 1967) [Screenprint on Paper 910 × 910 mm]Marily Monroe 1

Now, remember what I said about the factory and it attracting destructive personalities, well it’s time to talk about one individual In 1967, Warhol encounters writer, Valerie Solanas. She writes him a script and desperately wants him to use it, but Warhol has no interest. What is worse is Warhol does not tell her. Instead, Warhol decides to feed her empty promises.

One day, Valerie has enough and asks Warhol about the whereabouts of her script. Warhol tells her he has lost it, and this enrages Valerie. A bit of background on Valerie Solanas – she was a radical feminist and part of a cult called SCUM which was an acronym for Society for Cutting Up Men.

On the morning of June 3rd 1968, Valerie armed herself with two automatic pistols. She initially has one target, her publisher. She goes to his hotel, waits 3 hours but abandons this target. She then chooses another target, and it is Andy Warhol.

At 4:15 pm, Warhol arrives at his studio and moments later Valerie Solanas arrives and opens fire at him. She fires three times; two shots miss but one hits and is fatal. Valerie also shoots other people in the studio. The reason why Valerie Solanas was able to waltz into Warhol’s studio was due to the lack of security, The Factory had none. It took in total 23 minutes for the ambulance to arrive at the scene. Even when Warhol reached the hospital it was a battle for survival with five doctors operating on him, but he survived.

The shooting scarred Warhol physically and mentally. Warhol saw that day as a dream, he saw his survival as God giving him a second chance at life. Warhol barely worked after the incident. The only new project he started was a magazine called Interview. But this would change at the beginning of the 1970s.

With the turn of the 1970s, Warhol completely changed his entourage. His studio was no longer this space that was open to anybody. Warhol used this decade to truly reinvent himself, he was not focused on being this enigmatic figure, he was focused on making money. Warhol once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”. In terms of controversy, the only painting he did, in my opinion, was on the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung (painted 1972).

The creation of this piece coincides with Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Warhol was fascinated by Mao, and how his image was everywhere in China. “I’ve been reading so much about China. (…) The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.”. Even today, the late leader’s face is still present across China; in Tiananmen (a massive gate in the centre of Beijing), a portrait of the late leader is on display.

Moreover, unlike his other silkscreen pieces, Warhol decided to incorporate expressive brushstrokes. This was something he rejected in his earlier career as a fine artist. During this decade some of his larger pieces would have brushstrokes created from mops.

Mao {Mao Tse Tung} (painted 1972) [Screenprint on Paper 914 × 914 mm]Andy-Warhol-Mao-one-plate-F.-S.-II.93-1972-screenprint-in-colors-914-x-911-cm-edition-50

Within this period, Warhol worked on numerous portraits with the focus being contemporary icons such as artists, collectors and friends. He would charge six figures per commission and they would be large, in the region of 40 by 40 inch (102 by 102 cm).

In terms of his films, they were less experimental and more tailored to a commercial audience. Even his paintings changed, their themes were less risky.

By 1974, Warhol’s annual income from just commissions was $1 million.

With all this money generated; Warhol was truly able to live a lavish life. He was able to outright buy a house and own a Rolls Royce.

By the 1980s Warhol had done everything, from appearing on television to music videos to even appearing in a Japanese advert. He would also encounter Jean-Michel Basquiat (Volume I – Memoir II: New York’s Beloved Icon) and Francesco Clemente. It should also be noted that during this decade, Warhol also focused on religious subjects such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Warhol’s life came to an end at 6:31am February 22nd, 1987. After completing a gallbladder removal, the day before. Warhol remained in a stable condition throughout the day. But in the early hours of February 22nd, his condition began to deteriorate.

What is more alarming, is no one knew what was happening during the first hours of that day. Reports indicate negligence, as the medical staff did not check his vitals during those crucial hours. Warhol died at the age of 58 and was buried in his hometown, Pittsburgh.

When we look at the story of Andy Warhol, he is the embodiment of what the “American Dream” is supposed to be to all Americans. A person who started with nothing and grew into an individual who had something. He is a touchstone of the culture we live in, from the idea of fame to reality tv. He is culturally one of the most important figures in the second half of the 20th century. If we erase his contribution to the world it would be profoundly different. He revised the meaning of art and turned it upside down. His art delved into the world we live in – our consumption habits.

Although his sexuality closed early opportunities in his 20s, it never stopped him from being successful, he wanted to have a legacy that was in the stratosphere. We can look at his life from the 1970s and onwards, and say Warhol was a “sell-out” but did he really care about anybody’s opinion? No. He was the cool kid and he knew it. An artist, filmmaker, photographer and many more. Warhol’s contribution to the art world will indeed stand the test of time. Warhol merged pop culture and commercial techniques to produce work that allowed the everyday man to feel a part in the art world.

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