Andy Warhol was a brilliant artist and entrepreneur. He was an influencer ahead of his time and one of the first people to become his own, living brand. He brilliantly blended commercial art, fine art, and business to create an art empire that is still relevant and profitable today. The years Warhol spent working as a commercial artist undoubtedly helped shape his approach to building an art-based business.
Warhol said, “I started as a commercial artist and I want to finish as a business artist.” He shattered the notion that a “starving artist” is the only type of artist worthy of respect.
As a printmaker and illustrator building my own creative business, I spend a lot of time researching and studying how to make it financially sustainable and ideally profitable. This drew me to Andrew Rossi’s Netflix docuseries “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” I love Warhol’s work, and have been on my own creative journey throughout my career and schooling in commercial design and illustration. Initially, I watched the documentary to learn more about Warhol’s creative business path, what I walked away with was new insight into his life and work, especially in relation to the social, cultural and political upheavals that surrounded him during his career.
Despite the rumours and speculations about his romantic partners and sexual orientation, Warhol kept his personal life very private. This caused controversy during his life and after. There are important viewpoints claiming he could have made a considerable difference advocating for social struggles and needed change with his influence. He mostly made the choice to stay out of political causes as much as possible and to focus on his art, but as to whether his legacy is impacted by his opting out of crucial civil rights and social justice efforts at such a key time in history, is a good question that deserves its own time and place for consideration. The Netflix series does touch on this, and I would encourage anyone to watch it to support a broader discussion on this issue. For this post, I have chosen to focus primarily on the huge strides Andy Warhol made in defining and succeeding in the “business” of art.
Andy’s life as an artist began when he completed his BFA in 1949 and moved from Pittsburgh to New York. While he started out creating illustrations for magazines, he soon followed his passion and transitioned to fine art. His innovative and often unique process for creating art involved a variety of approaches, including photography, stamping, silkscreen printmaking and painting.
Even though Warhol was known for being outwardly detached and aloof, he understood the inner emotional connection people develop for the brands we love. He tapped into this when he created what may be his most iconic and well recognized series of paintings featuring Campbell’s soup cans with label designs from the late 1950’s. The series was inspired by the bowl of soup he ate at lunchtime every day as a child. He continued to eat soup for lunch for nearly twenty years. Through his artwork, Warhol took the soup can off the grocery store shelf and hung it on a gallery wall. He challenged people to look differently at a can of soup and acknowledge the underlying importance that a seemingly mundane commercial item has in our day-to-day lives and how it can tap directly into our subconscious. To this day, Warhol’s soup can paintings evoke a nostalgic connection to a simpler time.
Pop artists like Warhol created artwork using images from advertising, comic books, and popular culture. They turned the traditional art world upside down and set modern art in a new direction. The art used humour and irony to comment on how mass production and consumerism had come to dominate so much of American life and culture (Felix Horhager, History.com).
Central to Warhol’s brilliance was how he recognized the need to produce enough marketable art to appeal to art dealers and the public so he could both make a living and feed his irrepressible talent for innovation. Working with a team of assistants using silkscreen prints, Warhol was able to create a large body of work to meet the demand his vision and talent were creating. The studio and office space Warhol first worked out of was famously called “The Factory.” It became much more than just a place to “manufacture” art, however. The Factory became an influential creative meeting place that established what and who was cool and trending on the New York art scene. Andy Warhol was building a business and becoming a major cultural force. He was the trend.
Part of his innovative branding style was to package himself as the product. Andy Warhol adopted a signature style of wearing sunglasses and a silvery blonde wig. He created a new brand identity that was an extension of his artwork. Everything he did reflected his creative philosophy and added to his vision. He evolved into his own brand. In addition to applying the business model of supply and demand to his art, Warhol successfully used the three components of building a successful brand that are still practiced today:
Warhol developed a creative philosophy, public persona, and business style that remained consistent throughout much of his career. Because of this, he had a solid reputation that earned him power, profile, and influence. People were drawn to Andy because being affiliated with him created instant visibility and relevance, increasing their chances of success.
Warhol persevered and forged new paths within the art world by launching a variety of projects related to his art. Creating Interview Magazine kept him plugged into art, music, fashion, culture, and film. Collaborating with young, up-and-coming artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, helped Warhol remain current and preserve his youthful energy. Warhol also branched out and experimented in industries like film, modelling and acting to nurture his connection with popular culture, but also to provide multiple touchpoints to himself and his work – he transcended mediums.
Warhol was dedicated to maintaining his public image. He held the attention of a huge audience through his art, yet he maintained a very private, almost lonely, personal life offstage. Despite the rumours and speculations about his romantic partners, and sexual orientation Warhol maintained the discipline of keeping his private life in the shadows to allow the spotlight to shine on his art. Warhol did support and promote artists of colour. He helped to bring long deserved credibility and added prominence to a diverse range of outstanding artists whose works are still revered and admired to this day, especially for the statements they make on the causes of their time.
The value of art is difficult to define and highly subjective, even in its own field. It is often seen as frivolous and pretentious. Andy Warhol established his own definitions of art and its value.
Warhol said, “People put down the idea of business. They’d say money is bad and working is bad. But making money is art. And good business is the best art".
By building his art business, he created a measurable, commercial value to his works as products that people understood. He was creating a feeling that was as relatable and meaningful as the Campbell’s soup cans he first painted.
He understood, for example, that in a materially wealthy culture it is the label design and our familiarity with it through marketing and advertising that inspires us to buy the soup as much as the desire for the soup itself. By using repetition and reduction of the soup can image, he taps into and artistically represents our subconscious reasons for purchasing the soup that may not be related to hunger but more to a consumer feeling and emotional loyalty, which makes a profound statement on the post-modern state of human civilisation.
According to the article What Good Business Should Be (Theschooloflife.com), “Good business is directed at genuinely helping people and makes a profit on the assumption that what it offers is helpful and so people are right to pay the price.” Andy Warhol Enterprises Inc. used art to create good business, representing business as much more than just earning money from making art.
To Andy Warhol, “good business” meant people liked him as an artist and a person and that emotional investment transferred into both is financial and artistic success. This was a pivotal point for someone who struggled to fit in as a child. Good business meant acceptance, status and popularity not just for himself but for those who supported and surrounded him. Andy created a community with his art to help those around him find success and earn a living from their art.
Business success gave Andy Warhol added credibility as both an artist and an entrepreneur. As an influencer, he had an audience to communicate the important social, cultural, and political issues he addressed in his work, even if not directly or explicitly declaring his side on social struggles boiling over throughout his living era. His way was to help bring attention to these issues through his art, his life and in proving that he could do it successfully.
The impact and significance of Andy Warhol’s commercial and creative success are still relevant today. His artwork and that of his colleagues and proteges, continues to be bought and sold for ever greater prices. The complexity and legacy of Warhol’s art, business and personal life continue to be studied in documentaries, books, articles and even in today’s artistic products, works and expressions. With his large body of work, he continues to communicate through his art. Andy Warhol’s audiences, old and new, are still paying attention and even to this day we grapple with the size of his influence and depth of his vision.
A great artist will do that. As another famous innovator in his own discipline, who was also a contemporary of Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, said, “Artists in various fields are always the first to discover how to enable one medium to use or to release the power of another.” It could be said that Andy was the first to release the power of his art through his mastery of business and in so doing, forever changed how the modern world sees itself.
“Andy Warhol’s Soup Can Paintings: What They Mean and Why They Became a Sensation” by Susan Delson
“Campbell’s Soup: Critical Review” by Myartbroker.com
“Andy Warhol Offered to Sign Cigarettes, Food and Even Money to Make Money” by Blake Gopnik
“Andy Warhol Biography” by Biography.com
“The Brand Called You” by Tom Peters
“What Good Business Should Be” by Theschooloflife.com
“Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan: The Artist and the Sociologist” by John Seed, Art Writer