In this success story, we are going to share Andy Warhol’s life story, an American artist, filmmaker, producer, and photographer who had a prolific impact on the world of art.
The influence of Andy Warhol has shaken up the art world left it forever altered. Initially dismissed by New York’s established artists, Warhol reveled in international super stardom and critical acclaim. He founded the concept of pop art and created a multimedia Factory in New York City, where some of the most fabulous and most glamorous people of the 60s hung out.
Warhol rarely delved into typical boys activities. Instead, he spent his childhood fascinating himself with movies, comics, photography, and drawing. Ever since he was a kid, he showed his intellectuality, which was much admired by those who knew him. His rebellious attitude not only gained him critical acclaim in the world of fine art but also laid the groundwork for a new genre of music to be born out of New York City.
It all starts at a small kitchen table where Julia Warhola gathers her three children to tell them the history of their family.
The legend begins in the village of Mikova, a small outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the Carpathian Mountains. The people of Mikova were Byzantine Catholics whose allegiance was with the Russian Orthodox church in Kyiv. They were God-loving peasants; handsome men, and pretty women with soft skin, contrary to the depiction of Ruthenians in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Andy’s father Andrei was among those handsome men, rocking a glamorous mustache with his baggy white trousers tucked into dirty working boots.
The war had lost the Warholas most of their possessions, including their home and Julia’s husband Andrei. Andrei was in America making money, a separation that would last nine years. After the war, a significant flu epidemic killed tons of people in Europe, especially in the Carpathians. Having to support three children in extreme poverty, Julia was determined to emigrate to America and find her husband. She borrowed $160 from a local priest, put her children in a horse cart, train, and then ship to make her way to America in 1921.
Like his mother, Andy would often exaggerate his childhood, painting a dramatic depiction of a family in poverty and being the youngest sibling who was often bullied and misunderstood. Andy frequently lied about his age and place of birth. In the 1971 film Andy Warhol, he is portrayed to have been born at midnight in the midst of a fire.
Pittsburgh was a dirty working-class city in the 20s. One miner was quoted saying, “This is hell if there is a hell anywhere.” Humans had to live in abominable habitats, faced with horrendous ugliness and revolting smells twenty-four hours a day. In fact, there was so much smog that cars had to drive with their headlights on during the day.
Pittsburgh was where many immigrants came to work. In this dirty place, their only escape was alcohol and prostitution. Unlike many Ruthenian immigrants, Andrei neither gambled nor drank.
Andy Warhol was born on August 06, 1928, in the family’s bedroom. It was just one year before the Great Depression hit America. Early life in Pittsburgh wasn’t very glamorous, and Andy often got sick.
Andy developed a fear of hospitals and doctors. His medical conditions often led him to stay in bed during school-days. It turned him into a bit of an outcast amongst kids. It also led to Andy developing a significant bond with his mother. Amongst the smog and depression of Pittsburgh, Andy appeared almost like a cartoonist Cinderella type of character.
The Family moved into a better neighborhood of Oakland. It was like going into a different world. Andy Warhol was able to attend a safer elementary school where he wasn’t bullied for the way he looked and for his funny immigrant last name. While all the boys played softball and football and went swimming in Schenley Park, Andy mostly stuck to himself and drew with crayons. He was very observant and knowledgeable and disliked most of the typical boy activities.
Andy often hung around girls instead of guys. His best childhood friend was a Ukrainian girl Margie Girman. They looked similar regarding size and build. Andy would usually be found playing with Margie on the street or waiting for her on her doorstep. Andy modeled himself after Margie, who always stimulated Andy to do well in school. They have a photograph together when they were seven years old. Their expressions and stance are very similar to one another, almost as if they had the same personality. Part of Andy wanted to be Margie.
At school, Andy’s reputation as a crybaby often forced people to overlook that he was suffering from a strange condition. He started getting shaking hands and slurring his speech, finding it hard to sit or stand. It came down to not being able to write his name or tie his shoelaces. When the family called Dr. Zeedick, he immediately diagnosed Andy with a mild case of “St. Vitus’ dance” and ordered him to stay at home for at least a month.
Developing as a Young Artist
Staying home wasn’t all anti-productive as Andy soon took up drawing, listening to the radio, and collecting pictures of celebrities. Upon reflection, Warhol stated that this was a pivotal point in his development as an artist. Spending time at home helped him attain a skill set, understand his personal preferences, and develop his unique character. The drawing was his favorite childhood activity.
Andy was an avid movie fan. When his mother bought him a camera at the age of 9, he got into photography. He set up a darkroom in the basement and developed his own photos. Andy Warhol enjoyed all sorts of artistic activity and even took free art classes at the Carnegie Institute while attending school.
The month of detachment from the outside world was a blessing for Andy. He was finally allowed to do what he loved for a month straight. Julia provided him with movie magazines, comic books, and cut out paper dolls, and he was always engaged in art. Andy colored books, ran the house radio, made collages with magazine illustrations, watched films, and daydreamed. Andy’s oldest brother Paul showed him how to put wax on the surface of a comic strip and turn the image over on white paper. It was the lesson of reproducing an image on a different paper, a process that stuck with Andy throughout his maturation as an artist.
In fact, Andy ended up staying at home for two months, after a violent incident with his neighbor left him in worse condition than before. He simply didn’t want to go back in fear that kids would beat him up. Andy hated physical violence and stayed away from it. When Andy finally went back to school, he was put ahead of the other kids, even though he missed two whole months.
In the meanwhile, Andrei worked so hard that he often came back home with enough energy to stand outside, silently watering the garden with a hose. Andrei was tough. He could stop the fighting or argue of the three brothers with a threatening glance that scared the boys stiff. Julia begged Andrei to stop overworking. Their eldest son Paul was already working and brought the salary to the house, so it was no longer necessary for Andrei to overwork. Yet, the father still pushed himself to take every opportunity he could. His most significant concern was what would happen to his savings after he died.
The tragedy struck when Andrei passed away from liver complications. In profound misery, Andy hid under his bed throughout his father’s funeral. In his will, Andrei stated that all of his life savings would go towards Andy’s education.
With Andrei gone and Paul soon to be married, Andy and Julia clung to each other through the vulnerable times. Julia soon suffered from ill health, something that greatly troubled and scared Andy. Her condition got so bad that she called a doctor to the house who diagnosed her with colon cancer. At best, her chances of survival were fifty-fifty.
Julia had undergone a painful operation that was successful against all the odds. Andy burst into the hospital on the day of the surgery asking, “Did Momma die?” They prayed a lot for the good health of his mother. When Andy had nowhere else to turn, he turned to God. His praying helped him much in his early life.
Adolescence & High School
On the day his mother returned from the hospital, Andy’s angelic beauty disappeared. Puberty struck him furiously. His nose became more prominent, and his skin condition started showing. He rarely ate and turned skinny. The Cinderella character of Andy Warhol begun morphing with the role of Dracula – a transformation that later earned him the nickname Drella amongst his superstar friends.
The lucky thing was that Pittsburgh was the right place to study art in the 30s and 40s. Some of the leading collectors of the world were there, and they sponsored exhibitions and art classes for talented young people. While going to Schenley High school, Andy took advantage of these courses and attended them regularly.
The school housed a mix of students of different races. The art department was right, and that was where Andy spent lots f his time. Both students and teachers at Schenley recognized that he was a talented young individual. Andy was not picked on in this school. His brother John recalls that there was even an Irish boy who protected him. He later became a policeman.
Andy drew lots of his friends, who often huddled around his desk to watch. Wherever he went, he had his sketchbook with him. Drawings piled up in his room. Throughout his school years, Andy remained close to his childhood friend Margie Girman and her friend Mina. Mina wasn’t a trendy girl in school, but Andy often complimented her and told her she had beautiful hair and good taste in clothes.
Andy’s success with girls stirred jealousy with the boys. They wondered how could this strange looking pimply faced high-pitched Warhola talked so quickly to the girls that made other boys shake nervously.
As a teenager, Andy was a movie junkie. He enjoyed commercial Warner Brothers films with Humphrey Bogart, as well as Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse cartoons. Andy spent a lot of times near the radio listening to the war. The voices of Churchill, Hitler, and Edward R. Murrow permeated the household. His favorite radio character was the Shadow, and his favorite subject of war conversation was the death toll. Andy observed earthquakes, circus fires, railroad accidents, plane crashes, electric chairs, strange suicides, and various death related things. Back then, the newspapers barely filtered the gruesome imagery of death, and for Andy, it was the grislier, the better.
Graduation & College
Andy Warhol was close friends with the art teacher and wanted to become one himself. After graduating from Schenley High school in 1945, that was precisely what Andy planned to do. He already got accepted into the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, so he had a choice. Andy’s final decision was to study commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
Andy took every possibility presented to him at college. He joined a dance club and an art society. He became art director of a student magazine called Cano, making two illustrations in 1948 and 1949. Those are considered to be his first ever published artworks. Andy Warhol graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design in 1949.
Later that year, Andy dropped the “a” at the end of his last name to become Andy Warhol, and moved to New York City with his mother. He started out as a commercial artist career with magazine illustration and advertising. Within a year of being in New York, Warhol has worked with Columbia records, Harper’s Bazaar, Tiffany & Co., Glamour Magazine, and Vogue.
New York City
Upon establishing himself an acclaimed graphic artist, Warhol was able to turn to painting and drawing. His first exhibition was entitled Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote and displayed at the Hugo Gallery in 1952. Warhol eventually began using some photo-based techniques that he developed while working as an illustrator. His work matured and stood out, being in his specific style. Lots of art establishments took notice of Warhol’s artistic prowess and offered him a collaboration.
Andy Warhol lived in New York with his mother in an apartment on East 75th Street. It was around 1953-1955 that he dyed his hair silver to become the iconic Warhol as we know him. Apart from painting, Warhol published several books including Twenty Five Cats Named Sam, and One Blue Pussy. He traveled the world with his friend and television-set designer Charles Lisanby in 1956. That same year, his work displayed in a group exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Warhol soon began receiving outstanding feedback for his work. Between 1956 and 1957, he won three awards and gained a publication in Life magazine for an illustration he did. When the music record industry began expanding, Warhol was first on RCA’s list for designing album covers and promotional art.
It is in the late 1950s that Warhol developed his iconic painting techniques. He used tracing paper and ink to create endless variations on the same image. Warhol also developed his silkscreen printmaking technique, becoming one of the first people to use it. Warhol later recalled his process by saying, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.”
In 1961, Andy Warhol debuted with his concept of pop art. It wasn’t until the Campbell’s soup cans exhibition in 1962 that pop art stirred a hurricane in the art world. The show paved the way for Warhol’s debut in the national spotlight. It was at the Stable Gallery, where the exhibition took place. There, Andy met the poet and would be Warhol superstar John Giorno. Giorno would star in Warhol’s Sleep, his first film that he made in 1963.
“Once you ‘got’ pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought pop, you could never see America the same way again,” those were Andy’s words regarding pop art.
Even though Warhol did garner praise from those who ‘got it,’ it was very balanced out with the negative reception that he also received. The art world expressed lots of rage towards pop artists such as Warhol during a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Critics were embarrassed by Warhol’s embrace of consumer and market culture. This set the tone for the kind of reception Warhol will often receive for his work.
A 1964 exhibit entitled The American Supermarket proved a pivotal point in Andy’s career. It was held in Paul Bianchini’s Upper East Side gallery and presented a classic American supermarket environment, outfitted with meat, posters, canned goods, etc. The exhibit featured several prominent pop artists of the time including Warhol. At the exhibition, Warhol sold paintings of his Campbell’s soup cans for $1,500 each and individual autographed cans for $6. This exhibit is considered one of the first events to confront the public with the notion of pop art and explore what art could mean in general.
The 1960s was when Warhol made some of his most iconic paintings. Dollar bills, mushroom clouds, Coca-Cola bottles, and electric chairs, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, as well as other various celebrities. One of his controversial works of the time was a newspaper headline which depicted police dogs attacking African-American protesters at the Birmingham Campaign during the Civil Rights Movement. Andy has always been fascinated by “pop” culture. This is what he had to say about Coca-Cola:
“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 Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, 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. All the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
It is interesting to see how this concept works in the Blade Runner (1982) movie, where a trashed dystopian Earth, with most humans off the planet, still has a Coca-Cola advertisement which can be seen vividly among the metropolitan chaos.
In 1964, Warhol opened an art studio known as “The factory.” It was in a large warehouse, painted mostly silver on the inside. The factory was another statement of Andy’s. He took the analytical and highly personal aspects of art creation and demolished them by forming an art production machine that was his studio. Very quickly, word of the Factory spread through the art world, and it became the go-to place in New York. Wealthy celebrities, public figures, and intellectuals attended the lavish parties and gatherings at the Factory. To get a picture of the kind of figures you’d find there, simply take a listen to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
A significant aspect of Andy’s work is collaboration. Gerard Malanga, a frequenter at the Factory and friend of Andy’s, assisted him with various work. They produced silkscreens, films, and sculpture. When Andy was looking for a band, it was Malanga who brought him to see The Velvet Underground playing in a small cafe. Billy Name, Brigid Berlin, Mary Woronov, Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling, were all fascinating characters always present in Andy’s glamorous silver painted studio.
The Velvet Underground
An overlooked contribution of Andy’s was one that he made to the world of music. The Velvet Underground proved significantly influential on alternative music, spawning punk rock in New York. Every band from the CBGBs club cited the Velvet Underground as a primary influence on their art. Andy spectacularly hosted Velvet Underground concerts, calling it the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It included the band playing behind a film screening with psychedelic lights dancing around the room. Gerard Malanga and his dancing partner embodied the spirit of the heavily experimental music. While performing in Los Angeles to disgusted crowds of hippies, Malanga made a significant impact on a young college student who went on to become the Lizard King of rock’n’roll – Jim Morrison of The Doors.
Andy Warhol was the spectator who would be found observing the scene from the balcony. The legend goes that the Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) album didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought a copy went on to form a band. The noise, the darkness, the reality, the spectacle stirred a hurricane in the world of music which at the time was playing it safe with Greenwich Village folk songs. The west coast was all about peace and love, happiness, LSD, and marijuana. The gritty New York did not connect with that rhetoric. The factory scene set ground for state-altering drugs in the art world, such as amphetamine and heroin. Warhol and many of his friends frequently delved into experimentation with such substances in the sixties.
Andy’s unorthodox approach, his freedom of experimentation gave The Velvet Underground the possibility of changing the music world. Even though promotional tactics were applied, the Velvets were allowed to create experimental music that broke all boundaries. Songs like “Heroin” and the lengthy “Sister Ray” got them banned from radio stations. Such concepts in music were virtually unthinkable. Music was clean and commercial. So was the Velvet Underground in the way Andy presented them. But when the listener peeled off the first layer, they found themselves in a harsh and true reality – which was ugly yet so attractive and glamorous.
Andy Warhol Superstars
Many of Andy’s friends and collaborators became known as “Andy Warhol Superstars.” They starred in his film, acted as models, and hung out with him regularly – creating a sort of a clique. As Warhol became a regular fixture at the most infamous nightclubs in New York City, his Warhol Gang always tagged along, creating an eccentric and bohemian atmosphere. Andy enjoyed being a celebrity, saying that “more than anything people just want stars.”
Not all of Andy’s collaborators had been huge fans. A radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas, who had a lesser presence in the Factory, starred in one of Warhol’s films entitled I, a Man (1967). Apparently, Solanas was kicked out of the Factory after asking them to return a script that she had given Andy. Later that day, she shot Warhol and Mario Amaya, at the studio.
Both men survived although Warhol was severely wounded. Apparently, to stimulate movement in his body, doctors had to open his chest and massage his heart. Warhol spent weeks in the hospital recovering. This assassination attempt had a profound impact on Warhol, who suffered physical aftereffects and had to wear a surgical corset. His art also became different after the shooting.
Solanas turned herself in on the day following the shooting. She explained that her actions were influenced by the fact that Andy had too much control over her life. Solanas was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had fallen under the control of the Department of Corrections.
For many, the shooting marked the end of the Factory 60s. Warhol commented on the attack: “Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there — I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually, it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television — you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”
In the 70s, Warhol delved into various other forms of media. He published several books, including The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975) and Andy Warhol’s Exposures (1979). Along with Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol founded Interview magazine. Warhol’s experimentation led him to produce over 60 films throughout his career. His film Sleep (1964) depicts poet and early collaborator John Giorno sleeping naked for six hours. Another underground movie called Chelsea Girls (1966) portrayed several Andy Warhol superstars on a split screen. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey, there’s barely any plot. Watching this film can make one feel like they’re hanging out in the Factory with Warhol and the gang.
Compared to the 60s, the 70s were mostly a quiet decade for Warhol. Critics observed his art and his personality shifting towards a more entrepreneurial approach. Warhol enjoyed making portraits for various wealthy patrons including a Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi. Mick Jagger and John Lennon were also on the list. The most famous portrait that Warhol made was one of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1973. In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he said: “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
This was the time when Warhol could be found socializing in Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54. People described him as an observer, the shy and quiet type, while an art critic depicted him as the “white mole of Union Square.” In 1979, Warhol became one of the founders of the New York Academy of Art.
Warhol got criticized for becoming a “business artist” in the 70s. He didn’t receive positive feedback for his 1970s exhibits of celebrities. They were considered superficial and stale. Critics attacked them for “lack of depth.” Many believed that lots of what Warhol did in the 70s, including his Jewish Geniuses’ exhibition were simply to sell. In hindsight, those works became prominent in representing America in those times. The superficiality and commerciality of the works have captured 1970s American culture in a way that nothing else did. Andy Warhol knew what he was doing. Here he comments on his appreciation of Hollywood glamour: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”
The Neo-Expressionism and Transavantgarde movements were fresh in the world of art during the 1980s. Delving into collaboration and friendships with promising younger artists, Warhol re-emerged in the spotlight during the 80s. The New York art market was a “bull market” meaning that lots of money came in fast. Along with sculpture and photography, Warhol worked on television. He hosted Andy Warhol’s TV (1983–1984) and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes (1985-1987) on MTV. Warhol also planned on expanding his business further by creating a hotel.
Health Issues & Death
Towards the mid-80s, Warhol suffered from chronic issues related to his gallbladder that eventually led to his untimely death. On February 20, 1987, Warhol was taken to a New York Hospital where he had surgery to remove his gallbladder. The surgery went well, and he was expected to recover. However, several days later, he suffered complications that resulted in a cardiac arrest. Andy Warhol died in his sleep on February 22, 1987. He was 58.
Andy Warhol had always been afraid of hospitals and doctors. His family sued the hospital for inadequate care and malpractice, a case that was settled when the Warhol family received an undisclosed sum of money from an undisclosed source. Like the case of John Lennon, who also died in a New York City hospital, there are numerous suspicions regarding the real reason for Warhol’s death. In the book Up-Tight: the Story of the Velvet Underground (1983), Gerard Malanga writes: “Andy Warhol was murdered in an NY hospital by mange-ridden running dogs for the underground fascist regime that really operates the monopoly game of America. He was a genius and a Saint and a “bad” man. Without him, no Lou Reed, no Nico, no Velvet Underground. Point. Set. Match. Fuck* everybody who killed him. May they suffer long and hard in the hot sun.”
Initial Dismissal & Andy’s Response
The first works that Warhol ever submitted to an art gallery were homoerotic drawings of male nudes. In the 60s, this was unheard-of, and these works were rejected for the fact that they were openly gay. In the book, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), Andy Warhol reveals to filmmaker Emile de Antonio the difficulty of being accepted socially by the more famous gay artists.
The 50s and 60s were a crucial moment in the development of Warhol’s persona. He would often refuse to comment on his art or talk about himself. Instead, his responses would be something like “Um, no” and “Um, yes.” Warhol’s evolution is a response to how the inner circles of the New York art world first dismissed him.
Andy Warhol Changed the World
Andy Warhol’s work was his life, and his life was his work. He satirized and celebrated celebrity, consumerism, and pop culture. His paintings distorted culture and money obsessed industries and brands. His focus on consumer goods and pop icons, his dismissal, and acceptance of cash and celebrity gave an interesting comment on the aspects of American culture that his work satirized. Through this lens, Andy Warhol changed the world.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts were established after his death. Through these institutions and the inspiration that he gifted to so many, Andy remains a fascinating cultural icon. Throughout his life, Andy was a collector. He had the eye for beauty and saw art in everyday objects. He collected Native American artifacts, early arcade equipment, and various works by artists. Most of his works are now in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In the years since his death, his importance only keeps growing.
“Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.” – Andy Warhol
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