“I come from nowhere.”
That’s how Andy Warhol described his origins—a simple beginning that’s a far cry from the crazy New York chaos he became famous for creating at his studio: the technicolor Pop Art prints; pornographic art films; Velvet Underground records; and general silver-haired, unapologetic zaniness that made Warhol one of the most famous artists in modern history.
That description of his own upbringing—part tongue-in-cheek exaggeration and part plainspoken truth—was characteristic of Warhol’s approach to art and life. He always seemed to be playing a joke on the world, refusing to ask people to look below the surface of whatever he was doing for any deeper meaning, whether it was eating a hamburger on camera without comment or assembling a vacuum in an art gallery, sweeping the floor and signing it as a piece of art.
Where Warhol’s seeming desire to play a joke on the world came from—whether a personality quirk or a desire to get back at a world that had gotten its licks in on him early—is anyone’s guess. But those dreary childhood experiences as a poor kid living in “nowhere,” were the necessary foundation for his ultimate status as international, self-made icon. In spite of its colorful energy, his art was resolutely accessible, inspired by the everyday things available to him as a poor, sick kid in Pittsburgh. His art served to even the playing field between his poor upbringing and the wealthy lives of the movie stars he adored and who fueled his life-long interest in fame.
It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Liz Taylor's finger.-Andy Warhol
The Everyday Celebrity
All his life, Warhol looked up to celebrities and wanted to be like them. And as much as he became a self-made artistic success, the fame he amassed as a public figure might be more impressive. Everything in Andy Warhol's early years should have led to a completely average life. But he found a way to not just escape those ordinary beginnings, but use them as the foundation for achieving the fame he craved—taking things as simple as a can of Campbell's soup and transforming them into art craved by the people he craved to be among.
Cramped, Crowded and Chronically Sick
Stuck in that attic is where Warhol would spend many of his childhood years. In third grade, Warhol came down with a nervous system disease known as Sydenham Chorea, thought to be a complication of Scarlett Fever—the same illness that deafened Thomas Edison, another of America’s great self-made men. Once Warhol got sick, he was often confined to bed in that crowded attic. But it was during those years stuck inside that Warhol developed the interests he would pursue his entire life. He spent his time drawing and reading comic books and celebrity tabloids. Looking back at both those magazines and the photographs from the movies he loved, it’s not hard to see their influence converging in his later screen-printed celebrity headshots—although his had the characteristic Warhol flair for the dramatic and were painted in near-neon technicolor.
A Tragedy and an Opportunity
They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.-Andy Warhol
With that gift, the path that Warhol envisioned was still fairly ordinary. He intended to go to the University of Pittsburgh after high school to study art education. But he ultimately changed both his major and the school he wanted to attend—which is where his story crosses paths with another of America’s self-made greats: Andrew Carnegie. Instead of the University of Pittsburgh, Warhol went to the college Carnegie had founded to give back to the masses after he made his millions. It was there that Warhol put his interest in both art and consumer culture together for the first time as he studied commercial art.
Finding Success in New York
With the formal training he received in college, Warhol was able to start making a living as an ordinary commercial artist—a far cry from what he would ultimately become. He moved to New York after college and began working as a commercial illustrator, where his skill and style were noticed almost instantly. Within a year of moving to the city, he was getting assignments from top magazines like Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He spent the next decade doing commercial illustrations. He was particularly known for his award-winning work of women’s shoes—fanciful illustrations for which he developed a technique of blotting wet ink on the paper to create multiple versions of the same drawing, a method that was an early precursor to the screen prints he would make later.
But commercial art wasn't enough for Warhol and, by the 1950s, his interests were starting to shift toward fine art. He began to paint and started to show some of his work in galleries. Even in those early shows he was already blurring the line between the commercial and fine art worlds. And once he started those shows, just as he had gotten noticed for his commercial work when he moved to New York, he did not languish in obscurity for long.
Founding a Movement
1961 was the year everything took off for Warhol. In that year, he first introduced what he called Pop Art—the name he gave his work turning everyday consumer objects like Brillo boxes into sculptures, newspaper headlines into paintings, and bringing brands like Coca-Cola into the art world. Within a year, he had a debut show in California where he showed his now-iconic Campbell’s Soup cans—the origins of which he himself tied back to his upbringing. He claimed that these paintings were inspired by his mother making Campbell’s Soup for him when he was young, but given Warhol’s knack for generating publicity, who can say whether it's a true story or just a good story.
For Warhol's career, the difference couldn't have mattered less. The reception to his Campbell’s Soup paintings was immediate—and incredible. He was on the art world's radar and, never one to let that go to waste, he dove in hard on Pop Art and began churning out work. By 1963, he opened his studio, The Factory, where he assembled an attention-grabbing array of artists, musicians, adult film performers and socialites to help him create. He hopped pell-mell between painting, filmmaking, photography and the real-life piece of performance art that was his public persona—all with a focus on the one thing that was still taboo in the art world: making money.
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.-Andy Warhol
To make wealth and fame a focus as an artist makes sense for someone whose career started in commercial culture and who had spent so many years trying to escape the plain circumstances of his childhood. But the reception of the art world wasn't so understanding. Critics complained about his openness regarding money, accusing him of being too commercial. But Warhol was unapologetic and, looking back today, it was precisely that focus on business that earned him a permanent place in culture and art history.
In that sense, Andy Warhol got what he had wanted his whole life. The fame he craved and the money he grew up without. But as Pop Art became part of pop culture, his artistic vision became fulfilled as well. His mass-produced images of mass-produced items were made to be consumed by the masses and, with his uniquely business-savvy approach to the art world, he made it happen. And made it big.
By the end, nothing about Warhol was small, no matter how small his beginning. But, in spite of the greatness that Warhol built, it was the commonness of his beginning—those everyday experiences of a poor kid—that were the foundation for his fame and the inspiration for all the self-made success he achieved.