Warhol had many assistants including Gerard Malanga, Brigid Berlin and Ronald Tavel. His assistants' approach was very significant, and his workshop ethos was both generated as a result of and influenced by his technique. His assistants allude to the techniques in which his works were produced, and his thought process. Marco Livingston states that Warhol ‘presented himself merely as a mediator’, putting a lot of onus on his assistants. Warhol says, ‘I was never embarrassed about asking someone, literally, ‘What should I paint?’ because Pop comes from the outside, and how is asking someone for ideas any different from looking for them in a magazine?’
Warhol barely planned his compositions according to Malanga, who said that ‘His vagueness was pretty precise’. Perhaps, he wanted to create a likeness in all of his work, to imitate his opinion that 'everyone should be a machine'. He painted white makeup onto his models, including Elizabeth Taylor, to anonymise her features and make her appear more cartoon-like, and he wanted more people to take up screen-printing so that his work couldn't be identified as his own. Livingston also says that 'Warhol devised numerous ways — both obvious and devious — of creating surfaces that looked as though they had barely been touched by his hand. Not only because it was part of his style to remain enigmatic but because he saw it as one of his roles to give the critics a job to do.' He replaced his mother's trademark signature on his work with 'a signature worthy of the Invisible Man: a simple rubber stamp of the type used by, or on behalf of, officials too busy or remote from their work to be able to sign their own names to it.' For all of these reasons, we get the impression that Warhol wanted anonymity and banality in his works from the Pop Art era, and that that was what came to epitomise Andy Warhol's paintings.
Warhol started off by making department store mannequins, earning money in this way. He started collecting works and inspiration from Jasper Johns. Warhol used inventive techniques: stamps with stars, sunbursts, hearts, butterflies, flowers, and strawberries carved by hand out of soft gum eraser called Artgum. However, soon he moved away from this in favour of banality: newspaper advertisements, comic strips, mass-produced items such as matchbooks, and consumer products like canned soup and Coca-Cola. In 1961, an art dealer named Muriel Latow suggested painting Campbell’s soup cans. Although supermarket items already featured in his work (Peach Halves, 1960), Warhol adored painting the soup cans because he used to have it for lunch every day. In the Swenson interview, Warhol admitted about the soup cans, ‘Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea.’ On November 23, 1961 Warhol gave Latow a cheque for his revolutionary suggestion.
Initially, Warhol used mass-media material intact for his art, pasting magazine/comic pictures directly onto the canvas. His first groups of soup cans were hand-painted, and enlarged by projection, tracing and masking. He began enlarging 2D sources with an opaque projector to transfer outlines in pencil onto primed, stretched canvas. He then painted them with synthetic polymer paint, a water-based plastic paint which was a fast-drying substitute for oil paint. The number of paintings he did in a series equalled the number of varieties of Campbell’s soup then available, which was 32.
The ‘Pop label’ didn’t gain general currency until 1962 with insurgence of Roy Lichtenstein’s art. Warhol and his contemporaries then began to discover a more appropriate way of reproducing mass-media — mass production using a hand-cut silkscreen technique (serigraph). As Livingston states, it was the ‘logical development from previous procedures’. A film positive with a design is pressed next to a screen in a vacuum and exposed to extremely strong lights. The screen is a light sensitive emulsion, so the parts of the screen which were covered by the film - and thus were not exposed to the UV light - do not harden and can be washed out with water. The exposed areas, however, do harden and so close the meshes of the screen. A squeegee is used to push the ink through the exposed print area of the screen, onto a fabric or canvas placed beneath it. Screen printing had low costs, even for huge sizes, and could create shiny, transparent and opaque colours on a canvas. Furthermore, it was possible to print on many different materials, therefore appealing to Warhol. The Marilyn pictures were inspired by a publicity still by Gene Kornman for the 1953 film Niagara, in which Monroe featured. Warhol completed the first batch of these just a few days after Monroe's unfortunate death and the Kornman image is cropped to reduce the personalisation of the image to just her face. The banality of suffering is portrayed here through this cropping, and the replication of images causes the image to lose, to some extent, its visual power. Malanga stated that Warhol's opinion on diptychs were that ‘it made the painting twice as valuable', but sadly here it decontextualises suffering into something found in a magazine.
In 1963, Warhol completed his first version of Mona Lisa. This canvas combines colours of the commercial printer (black, yellow, cyan blue and magenta), in overlappings of three separate screens of her face. The fact that the composition resembles the produce of a printer, a mass-made product, gives the image that quality of mass-production, or at least reduces it to the realm of machine-made. Livingston says Warhol is ‘multiplying the familiarity of a much-reproduced image into a dizzying protrusion', outlining the intense quality that the composition holds. Warhol's continuing ability to capture the zeitgeist of the time is also worthy of note, and his unique ability to link fine art and consumer culture, as though they are within the same realm of significance, which he believes they are. Warhol uses another technique for his Green Coca Cola Bottles of 1962. The repetition of the bottle element is achieved by the continuous use of a single balsa wood carving, stamping the surface with a mass-made, reproduceable object. In one canvas, Warhol criticised and glorified the consumerist idols and surface values of America’s media-saturated postwar culture. “A Coke is a Coke,” he explained, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
Warhol's highest priced work, Silver Car Crash sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction on Wednesday November 13, 2013, for $105.4 million. Part of the Death and Disaster series from 1962-63, this image of a car crash fit within the series of suicide, car crashes and disasters. In June 1962, Warhol met with a friend, Henry Geldzahler, for lunch, who instructed Warhol that ‘It's enough life, it's time for a little death’. Warhol subsequently saw a photograph of plane crash, and was inspired to start depicting these gruesome images. The images in the series are all repeated a number of times on the same canvas, relating to the Marilyns and the Coca Cola Bottles in that quality. However, the commentary doesn't seem to be on mass production anymore -- no longer is Warhol depicting objects of the consumer's delight. He is causing a separate reaction, one that he touched on in the Marilyns. When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect. The viewer of these paintings skims through the tragedy with innocent indifference.
Arthur C. Danto states that Warhol is ‘the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced’. Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain, due to the complexities of his statements, philosophy and lifestyle. However, it is feasible to say that Warhol is an artistic genius, bringing the technique of screen printing back to life, and exploring mediums that were bizarre and unthinkable, including his own urine (Oxidation Paintings, 1978).
Marco Livingston, ‘Do It Yourself: Notes on Warhol’s Techniques’, in Kynaston McShine, ed, Andy Warhol A Retrospective (The Museum of Modern Art: New York, 1989)
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art
Arthur C Danto, The Brillo Box
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.