Andy Warhol: Pop Art versus High Modernism

1 Conversation

Andy Warhol, perhaps the best-known exponent of the American Pop Art scene, was extraordinarily prolific in his output of paintings and films. His works radically challenged high modernist ideas associated with the concept of originality and the role of the artist as individual. Through this and through his obsession with money, fame, commercialism and mass culture he challenged high art, blurring the distinction between it and popular culture.


By taking his images directly from such pre-existing sources as advertisements and everyday life and replicating them in seemingly unaltered silk-screen paintings, Andy Warhol effectively critiqued the concept of originality that was so firmly held to by the mandarins of high art. The majority of his images, often direct copies of two-dimensional advertisements, were chosen for their status as mass culture icons. His Campbells soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles for example, were so similar to their original sources that they raised questions regarding their true nature- were they paintings of soup cans and bottles or paintings of advertisements for these products? Critics of the time ferociously attacked Warhols art for this untransformed and non-symbolic subject matter. Indeed Warhol himself had (in implication) confirmed the unmediated appropriation of everyday objects and images from mass culture, in saying: "Pop artists did images that anyone walking down Broadway could recognise in a split second." (Verevis, Constantine. Introduction to Visual Culture: Back to the Future)

However, Thomas Crow suggests that Warhols Marilyn Monroe portraits disprove this theory: "The hair and earrings correspond to one widely reproduced publicity still- an upward tilted,right facing view. The face, however, seems to come from another shot, one that is angled to the left and lowered slightly." (Crow, T. Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol. Pg.133)

Consequently, it is not impossible for at least some originality to be found in the presentation of subject matter in Warhols artworks. And even if his Marilyn Monroe silk-screen portraits are exceptions to the rule, his method for replicating them- that is, of using photographs as direct sources for the images- was, for its time, both advanced and unique. (Blinderman, B. Modern Myths: An Interview with Andy Warhol Pg.145)

In addition to this, however, Warhol challenged the emphasis placed on originality by high art through his use of repetition and seriality (made possible by the mass production technique of silk-screen printing).
By 1966, Warhol had transformed his studio into 'the Factory'- a place of mass production where he created both art and films. Here he replicated brand images such as coca-cola bottles and portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe ('a star being a human brand image' (Hughes, R. 'The Rise of Andy Warhol' Pg.46)).

Repetition was an important strategy for Warhol coming as he did from a background in commercial art. He produced many series of quasi-identical silk-screen paintings from single photographs and also repeated these images on single canvases. Such multiple serialised displays include 'Marilyn x 100' (1962) and 'Thirty Are Better Than One' (1963). Offering an explanation for his excessive use of exact repetition and seriality, Warhol famously said:
"Somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me...The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine." (Haskell, B. 'Pop Art' Pg.81)

This mechanical reproduction and repetition, when observed in his disaster series, emphasises (by mimicking) the horror of the desensitisation that is the product of constant exposure to the media sources which inform us of such misfortunes. Similarly highlighting a kind of numbness of emotion, his serial images of celebrities demonstrate the superficiality of the knowledge of a person with whom the culture assumes such familiarity (as is noted by Haskell, Pg.84). John Cage, an American composer, interpreted Warhols use of repetition and serialisation as follows: "Andy has fought by repetition to show us that there is no repetition really, that everything we look at is worthy of our attention." (Haskell, Pg.77)

This insistence on the equal worth of all of his subject matter can also be seen in his earlier films which often employ a static camera, thus producing 'unchanging film frames in serial repetition' (Friedberg, A. 'The end of Modernity: Where is your Rupture?' Pg.171). His monumental Empire, an ideal example of his serial mode of film making (where he would sometimes simply set up a camera and leave, letting the film roll finish on its own), consists of twenty-four hours of various long shots of the Empire State Building.

But although, through repetition, Warhol challenges the concept of originality, variations were introduced within his various series of silk-screen paintings both to ensure each paintings rarity and limit its proliferation (thus guaranteeing its market price), and because, as he complained in the late sixties: "It's so boring painting the same picture over and over." (Hughes, R. 'The Rise of Andy Warhol' Pg.54)


Repetition and replication, whilst challenging the notion of originality, also denied individuality through extreme impersonality. Although Andy Warhols artworks were widely criticised for their apparent pointlessness as almost direct copies of their sources, they proposed a new kind of subjectivity (whereby emphasis was shifted away from the artists cathartic expression to the viewers role as interpreter). In so doing, they called into question well-established notions of the artists role as individual. Roland Barthes eloquently described the modern authors (or artists) role: "the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original." (Barthes, R. 'The Death of the Author' Pg.146)

In reaction to Abstract Expressionism (in which the canvas functioned as an arena on which the painter was to express himself rather than represent things), Andy Warhol seemed to emphasise Barthes notion of the death of the authors originality and individuality. He made impersonality a style, using detached methods of rendering commercial and mass cultural images. His early paintings (of Campbells soup cans for example), were, in comparison to his later silk-screened works, quite expressionistic in their loosely applied paint and abstract expressionist drips. (Haskell, Pg.79) In 1962 however, in an attempt to finally remove all evidence of personal touch from his art, Warhol adopted the silk-screen printing technique, which involved squeezing paint through a piece of silk, of which parts had been masked. Ironically though, this technique was not absolutely impersonal and objective. Silk-screened images could still be told apart, if only by irregular inkings and deferring tones, and they retained a hand made look. (Haskell, Pg.79)

Not only did his technique of mass-production deny the notion of the artists individuality, but Warhols direct reproduction of everyday objects from mass culture also debunked the idea of the God-like authorial voice. In the early 1960s Warhol began to duplicate banal, mass-produced supermarket products and display them in art galleries (which further blurred an already ambiguous demarcation of high from low art). This idea, borrowed from Marcel Duchamps ready-mades, reduced the creative act to one of choice (Honour, H. and Fleming, J. A World History of Art 803), thus discrediting the authority and individuality of the artist. It is in this way that Brillo (1964), acrylic silk screen on wood, parodied high-art seriousness and consumerism in an almost sadistic manner.

However, while Andy Warhol may have been the most impersonal of the Pop artists, he too drew his subjects from his own experiences- those second hand experiences we all share.
Moreover, his art and films, in general, offered no comment on their status as mass culture icons. Warhol wrote in one of his books:
"The less something has to say, the more perfect it is. The thing to think of is nothing... Nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy, nothing is not embarrassing... nothing is perfect." (Warhol, A. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again.)

Indeed, by treating all pictorial and filmic subjects in the same way, Warhol remained silent, offering no comment on his subject matter. His films (a pertinent example being The Chelsea Girls of 1966 in which a camera is left set up while various people come before it 'to posture and talk') employ a 'minimum of directorial mediation' (Fischer L. and Huxley, G. Carnegie Magazine). As Warhol once explained:
"With film you just turn on the camera and photograph something. I leave the camera running until it runs out of film because that way I can catch people being themselves." (Fischer L. and Huxley, G.)
In working to be impersonal, Warhol allowed the viewer to respond directly to the object, rather than to his skill and personality, thus putting him (the viewer) back in touch with his own intuitions.

In a more radical way, Warhol undermined the authority of the artist by refusing to sign his name to his artworks. Thus, he came to function more as a commercial producer (or 'brand name') endorsing whatever subject matter he chose to portray.

Additionally presenting a challenge to the notion of the artist as individual, a great deal of controversy surrounds the question of the true author of (some of) Warhols artwork and films. Although it is commonly asserted that Warhol often had nothing to do with his paintings other than selecting the images to be reproduced (and it has even been argued that Warhols images were chosen for him), Warhol denied these allegations in an interview in 1981:
Andy Warhol: "Yes, but I really do all the paintings. We were just being funny. If there are any fakes around I can tell."
Barry Blinderman: "So many people insist that other people do your paintings."
Warhol: "The modern way would be to do it like that, but I do them all myself." (Blinderman, B. 'Modern Myths: An Interview with Andy Warhol' Pg.146)

In regards to his films, it is widely agreed that, until his near fatal shooting in 1968, Warhol produced and directed them himself (although often this simply consisted of setting up the camera and letting the reel finish on its own). However, during his recovery from the shooting, Paul Morrissey directed Warhols film
projects (which included Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972)) and eventually Warhol abandoned film making altogether. Though Warhol only added his name onto these Morrissey films to help box office sales, they are, ironically, the best known of his films. The very fact that people other than Andy Warhol could produce these works and have them pass as authentic 'Warhols' demonstrates the eclipse of the individual expression of the author.

By destroying the modernist myth of the artist as an impoverished outsider, Andy Warhol came to challenge the role of the artist as individual on another level. By capitulating to the mainstream, and to money and by adopting a style of art which defied abstraction and transformation, Warhol desanctified the artists role and demythologised art (Haskell, B. Pg.89):
"Artists and their supporters became ordinary citizens, no longer members of a select intelligentsia. Culturally, artists moved from being outsiders to insiders, from proverbially impoverished creators working on the fringes of society to newfound darlings of the jet set and high society." (Haskell, B. Pg.89)

Nevertheless, it mustn't be forgotten that the very voice which was supposedly effaced by this desanctification of the artist is also the one which told us that it had no point to make (this point is argued by Crow in 'Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol' Pg.130). Perhaps Warhol emphasised this point too much for it to seem acceptable. By cultivating an impression of superficiality and banality he was interpreted as an 'expressionless counterpoint to the self-consciously heroic and transcendent modernism of the Abstract Expressionists' (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: 'Andy Warhol: Social Observer'): "Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." (Warhol, A. 'The Philosophy of Andy Warhol')

In fact, it may seem conceivable that personal expression (in Warhols case, precisely the 'non-expression' and the obsession with media celebrity, money, fame and surface, and in his later films the camp aesthetic) does dominate his works. After all, Warhol himself rejected the idea of neutrality that is so often read in his art and films (Crow, T, Pg.136). As Andrew Kagan suggests, the concepts of emptiness, nothingness and surface which Andy Warhol so strongly advocated (and emphasised in his method of rendering them in his art) could be seen as the 'philosophical foundations of his style' (Kagan, A. 'Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the Anti-Culture of Punk'). They were the manifestation of Warhols insistence on indifference:
"I don't want to get too close. I don't like to touch things. That's why my work is so distant from my self" (Warhol, quoted in Kagan).

So although his art and films have been seen, in their apparent detachment, as reactions against high arts belief that art consists of individual artists cathartic expressions, they could also be viewed as a very traditional kind of high-artistic activity in their expression of Warhols 'quest for personally comforting images' (Kagan).

In either case, Andy Warhols art and films remain ironically and distinctly 'Warholian'. He is understood, in the end, as the author of these works and the originator of the ideas that underlie them. As Hughes emphasised: "What the clients want is a Warhol, a recognisable product bearing his stamp." ('The Rise of Andy Warhol' Pg.54)


In challenging the concept of the original and the role of the artist as individual, Andy Warhol was also challenging 'high art'. Aware of the continuing ambiguous relationship between commercial and fine art, he used the photographic silk-screen process (which removed subjectivity from his paintings) to free himself from the clutch of Abstract Expressionism.
Thus, his painting, Thirty Are Better Than One (1963) (in which the Mona Lisa is replicated and repeated thirty times on a single canvas, while challenging the concept of the original, can also be read as a direct attack on 'high art', which held Leonardo da Vincis painting to be one of the most important portraits to have ever been produced.

In striving to 'bring art back into contact with the concrete and the everyday' (Haskell, Pg.69), Warhol challenged 'high' art by inspiring a merging of this gallery form with 'low' commercial art. The aforementioned 'Brillo' exemplifies this merging, which lies at the very heart of Pop art. It raises questions such as 'what happens when you stick things in a gallery?' and 'what are galleries for?'. Warhols 'Monroe' series is another important work in this context, as Marilyn Monroe 'was a figure with a public myth that crossed over from commercial entertainment into high art' (Crow, T. Pg.132).

Perhaps though, this point is more clearly demonstrated by his filmic body of work. As with his artwork, Warhol sought to break down the distinction between avant-garde art and commercial Hollywood films. Thus he challenged both Hollywood and the avant-garde cinema, attacking fundamental elements of both (including plot, character, editing, cinematography and duration). His film career is thought to have marked a turning point within avant-garde art cinema which 'reworked his long-take, fixed-camera aesthetic into what came to be known as structural film' (O'Pray, Mike. 'The Innovators 1960-1970: Andy Warhol-The Big Wig'). Eventually, Andy Warhol rejected his minimalist serial-mode filmmaking for the camp aesthetic- a move which involved the rejection of high culture for the banal, kitsch, and the everyday.

In his merging of fine art with commercial forms, the distinction between high collectable art and the collection of everyday commodity broke down. As Harold Rosenberg said: "Warhol has liquidated the century-old tension between the serious artist and the majority culture". (Hughes, R. Pg.54)

As highly marketable mass-produced commodities, Warhols silk-screen paintings were also readily available in more accessible print forms such as post-cards and posters:
Barry Blinderman: "It's good that your art can be bought by all kinds of people, at least the prints."
Andy Warhol: "People think that my art is so expensive, and they're amazed when they find out that they can just walk in and buy one." (Blinderman, B. 'Modern Myths: An Interview with Andy Warhol', Pg.147)
This accessibility opposed the ideas of uniqueness and originality that were central to high modernist art.

Nevertheless, the fact that, in later years, patronage was a key feature of Warhols portrait work (whereby he was commissioned by rich would-be celebrities to produce silk-screen images of them similar to those of Monroe and Elvis) demonstrates that he was more concerned with money and material wealth than he was with challenging the key principles of high art.


Thus, in sum, Andy Warhols work can be seen, both through its use of unaltered replication of pre-existing imagery and its repetition and seriality, to be predominantly (though not entirely) criticising the notion of originality. His method of silk-screen printing, his appropriation of images and objects from the worlds of mass culture and advertising, his lack of commentary in regards to these images, and his destruction of the myth of the artist as impoverished outsider furthermore debunk the idea of the artist as individual.
Similarly, his refusal to sign his works and the controversy (provoked initially by Warhol himself) surrounding his status as the true author of his art and films demonstrate an eclipse of the authorial voice.

However, his non-expression and emphasis on surface can also be read as a form of personal expression (considering that he was fairly unique in his advocation of these things) and, in this way, his art still remains distinctly 'Warholian'. In addition to his questioning of these notions which are so dear to High Modernist art, Warhols films and paintings break down the distinction between fine art and its commercial counterpoint, specifically through the commodification of the artwork. The patronage of his later portrait work shows, however, that he was not deeply concerned with criticising the principles of high art.

Thus, while it seems that there are aspects of Andy Warhols art and films that do not challenge high art, the role of the artist as individual and the concept of originality, there are many more ways in which his work does do so.


Author unknown (2000) 'Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Andy Warhol: Social Observer'

Barthes, Roland. 'The Death of the Author'. Image-Music-Text. Trans: Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977. 142-148

Blinderman, Barry. 'Modern Myths: An Interview with Andy Warhol', Arts Magazine 56.2 (October 1981): 144-47

Crow, Thomas. 'Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol.' Art in America 72.5 (May 1987): P129-36

Fischer Lucy and Huxley, Geralyn. (2000) Carnegie Magazine. 'The Films of Andy Warhol: Cinematic Time Capsules'

Friedberg, Anne. 'The end of Modernity: Where is your Rupture?' (ch. 4) in Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993

Haskell, Barbara. 'Pop Art' in Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance Art 1958-64. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984

Honour, Hugh, and Fleming, John. A World History of Art (5th Edition). Great Britain: Laurence King, 1999. P846-849

Hughes, Robert. 'The Rise of Andy Warhol' Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Willis. New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. P45-57

Kagan, Andrew. 'Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the Anti-Culture of Punk.' Arts Magazine 53.1 (September 1978): P 19.-121

O'Pray, Mike. (December 1999) British Film Institute. 'The Innovators 1960-1970: Andy Warhol-The Big Wig'

Verevis, Constantine. Introduction to Visual Culture: Back to the Future. Monash University, 30-4-2001

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975

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