How Warhol invented the cult of celebrity
As a new exhibit of the artist's work opens in Ireland on the 30th anniversary of his death, Darragh McManus considers his legacy
Was Andy Warhol the greatest artist of the 20th century? He's certainly one of the most iconic: everybody knows those screen-prints of Marilyn and Mao, the painstaking paintings of coke bottles, the (ironically) timeless catchphrase about "15 minutes of fame" which pre-empted the celebrity age.
Warhol died, at a relatively young 58, in late February, a full 30 years ago now. But his legacy endures more than virtually any other visual artist of modern times: Warhol is up with Picasso in terms of instant recognisability, and cultural and monetary value.
Five of his works are among the 50 most expensive ever sold (the highest-priced, Eight Elvises, sold for a staggering $111m in 2008). Warhol regularly makes Forbes magazine's list of the top "dead earners" in arts and entertainment.
But it's more than just big bucks. Warhol is so iconic, so ground-breaking and influential, that he's seamed deeply into the warp of our culture.
Andrew Folan, head of print at National College of Art and Design, points out how, to this day, his young students will often do "a Warhol-style piece, but they're not doing it tongue-in-cheek - it's with a certain reverence. There's something really powerful about his work, no doubt about it."
That powerful work has arrived in Dublin to Gormley's Fine Art in Dublin's South Frederick St for a three week exhibition. Contemporary Exhibitions, says curator Gerard Gormley, features works from the 1950s to today, focusing strongly on Pop, street and urban art.
Alongside Banksy, Jeff Koons and others, there are seven Warhol pieces - which "look at how his work progressed over the years" - including Speed Skater, Birth of Venus and Marilyn Invitation. (And all available to purchase: Warhol prints start at a reasonable €20,000.)
"I'd agree that he's a genius," Gormley says. "He absolutely broke boundaries, taking the imagery of business and industry and bringing it to the gallery. A lot of that comes from his background in advertising. Then he brought his work to the masses but it still had that quality about it.
"He really understood the power of iconography. His imagery connected so well with people; it's still so relevant. And Warhol was the poster boy for the Pop Art movement. He brought it to life."
Unlike most famous artists, Warhol didn't attend art school. Professionally, he began as a commercial illustrator. As Folan says: "He went to design school and worked in that until he decided to unleash his products as an artwork... About that time, Pop Art was beginning in America and the UK. Warhol was in the right place at the right time."
Folan describes him as "a curious enough character to attract the right amount of attention" who eventually "became notorious". Warhol's studio, The Factory, was "more like a night club where they made art. There was a social scene, the right people calling in, and through that, he achieved superstar status".
So can he be named the greatest artist of the 20th century? For this non-expert at least, definitively yes. Either as part of a movement or singlehandedly, he invented the cult of celebrity as we know it today. He made pop/trash culture a valid subject for artistic expression: from "culture" in the sense of TV, movies, and media to advertising, packaging, and industrial logos.
He was ironic but sincere; as slippery, contradictory and ultimately unknowable as modern life itself. The self-created myth deconstructing the self-same myth - the most sincerely ironic-nod-and-wink ever made to the fame-hungry masses.