Not everyone thinks Andy Warhol is a genius, but everyone knows who he is. Love him; hate him; be indifferent to him; he is one of only a handful of 20th century artist just about everyone recognizes immediately. Recognizes and can probably call to mind at least one of his paintings be it soup can or movie star.
Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton is a highly readable account of just how Andy Warhol managed to become a household name. Mr. Scherman and Mr. Dalton limit their biography to the 1960’s, the period that saw the rise of Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s most creative and influential period. Mr. Warhol’s childhood and young life along with what happened to him after the 1960’s are covered, but focusing their biography on his most productive period allows the author’s to go in-depth in the most interesting part of the artist’s career. The result is a fascinating look at how Warhol’s art came to be.
It’s possible that his most well-recognized work is still his first successful series, the Campbell’s Soup cans. Mr. Warhol began as a commercial artist. For many years he made a very good living as a painter of shoes for a series of print advertisements. Once he became interested in crossing the line into fine arts he also became interested in blurring the line between fine art and commercial art. Throughout his career her would force the art world to reexamine why there was a distinction between the two. Always both a commercial artist and a fine artist, he continued to produce commercial art throughout the 1960’s, advertisements for shoes and cars paid the bills for his famed factory.
The soup cans were suggested by a friend who was paid 50 dollars for her ideas. They created a stir right from the start. But they did not create sales. The series was part of Warhol’s first significant Los Angeles gallery show. Everyone wanted to see them, and everyone had something to say about them, usually a joke, but very few people bought them, even at only 100 dollars a piece. Even in the mid 1960’s that was a low price. In the end, the gallery owner bought back the few he’d sold in order to keep the set intact. He paid Warhol 1000 dollars for the 32 canvases, each a different flavor of soup. They were later sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York at just over 15 million dollars.
While the Campbell’s Soup cans did not make much money for Andy Warhol, nor did any of the art he produced during the 1960’s other than the commercial art he continued to do to pay the bills, it did make him famous and it did make it clear that he was a force in the art world to be reckoned with.
Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol divides its attention between the story of how Mr. Warhol made his art and what his life was like. The authors do an excellent job with this. It would be more than easy to write a salacious, gossipy story of life at the Factory, the famed studio where Mr. Warhol worked during the 1960’s, but the authors are much more interested in the story of Warhol’s art itself. They are true believers in Warhol’s genius as an artist and they make a very convincing case for it. I came away from the book with a much deeper appreciation of Andy Warhol’s work and of what he was trying to do. Both the art and the ideas behind it are much more complex that they appear at first glance.
The last section of Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol deals with his work as a film maker. While Mr. Warhol loses me as an interested fan once he takes up filmmaking the book still entertains. We get the story of how Mr. Warhol began making improvised films along with the ideas behind the films but, based on the descriptions of his movies I found myself agreeing with Pauline Kael, a film critic quoted in the book for having said, “So often after an evening of avant-garde films one wants to go see a movie.” The authors do make a very strong case for Mr. Warhol’s film The Chelsea Girls as an important landmark in cinema history. They left me wanting to see the movie in its original two screen projection format.
I suspect biographies of artists have a very specialized audience, especially those concerned more with the production of art than with the more sensational aspects of the artist’s life. This is too bad really. Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol is a very good read. I found it every bit as informative and entertaining as Becoming Judy Chicago, which I reviewed in 2007. After reading and enjoying these two books it’s clear to me that I am a member of this very specialized audience and I suspect that many other readers out there would probably discover that they are too.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. This was the second artist biography that I loved which made me think I should read one every year. I did read a third one on Modigliani, but that was it. I never did get fully into the habit but I still want to. Just one artist biography a year. Would that be so hard?