how andy warhol used the store window display to launch a career

The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW reveals the artist’s early commercial work and store windows, which steered him on his path to success.

12 April 2017, 4:25am

Andy Warhol's window display at Bonwit Teller department store, 1961. Photograph by Nathan Gluck © Estate of Nathan Gluck. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

Right now, on display as part of the Art Gallery of NSW's current exhibition, Adman: Warhol Before Pop, is a large recreation of an early Andy Warhol store window display. It's a rare piece that was produced by the budding artist in 1955 for a high-end department store called Bonwit Teller to advertise a perfume called Mistigri by Jacques Griffe. Crafted from wooden panels, the image features hand-scrawled cats, playing cards and perfume bottles, arranged arbitrarily in Andy Warhol's distinctive early style. Multiple small cut-outs in the wood display the perfume in various bottles. Striking, creatively liberated and unique, particularly for a promotion of the time, the piece was one of a number of store-front windows created by Andy Warhol in the 50s, which represent his time as a successful commercial artist in New York.

Andy Warhol. Bonwit Teller window display advertising Mistigri perfume. 28 Jun 1955. Dan Arje papers. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive

For artists working during this time, avenues for releasing creative work were relatively limited. For an artist like Andy Warhol, who was openly gay, there were even more obstacles, and tales exist of galleries rejecting his work as a form of protest. Undeterred however, Andy Warhol recognised that his lifestyle was accepted by the fashion and beauty community, and wisely focused on this industry to forge the beginning of his career. Embraced by fashion designers and magazine editors, Andy Warhol developed a reputation as an artist who could make compelling work that could conjure and sell a dream. Over the course of the 1950s Andy Warhol came to be regarded as a clever, insightful, prolific and deliberately daring artist, capable of pioneering new and exciting ideas. His insights into branding and marketing are known to have been well ahead of their time.

One way a number of promising artists of the time demonstrated their creativity was via store windows. Considered valuable real estate with the ability to captivate the attention of huge numbers of viewers, these windows provided an oversized canvas for creative ideas and Andy Warhol is one of a handful of artists remembered for their visionary work. Giving Andy, and a number of his now well known contemporaries, the opportunity to create these windows was an eccentric artist named Gene Moore. He had moved to New York to become a painter but, frustrated with his own ability, was said to have burned all his paintings before being appointed display director at the ritzy Bonwit Teller department store in 1945. Recognising the potential of the store-front window, Gene sometimes commissioned emerging artists he admired to design windows to specific themes or products, but occasionally gave them the opportunity to exhibit their own work, entrusting them with pure creative freedom. In this way it's been remarked that he helped launch the art careers of, not only Andy Warhol, but also Salvador Dali, Sari Dienes, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and pop artist James Rosenquist. The stories behind the windows are now the stuff of legend.

Exhibition installation view 'Adman: Warhol before pop' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. All artworks from The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ARS.

Salvador Dali was one of the original artists to be hired by Bonwit Teller, who instigated its era of creative collaboration. He created windows for the store in 1929 and again in 1939, decades before Andy Warhol. For his latter window, Dali produced two separate displays, one representing day and the other night. As you'd expect, from what we know now, his windows were out there, playing with the surreal concepts that informed his work. In the Day window he lined a bathtub with black lambskin, filled it with water and had three wax hands holding mirrors reaching out of it. In the tub was a mannequin wearing nothing but green feathers. For the Night window, the feet of a poster bed were replaced by buffalo legs and the canopy was topped by its pigeon-eating head. In this version, a wax mannequin sat nearby on a bed of coals.

All of this was unprecedented in mainstream society and fairly shocking to 5th Avenue shoppers. In response to widespread criticism, the store replaced Dali's displays with traditional store mannequins wearing conservative suits. This angered the artist to the extent that he, in a rage, stormed the window display and attempted to pull his bathtub off the floor. Startlingly the bath slipped and crashed, with Dali himself, through the front window leading to the street.

Although nothing quite this dramatic happened to Warhol, a commission for the department store in 1961 brought what could be considered his big break. The artist hung five of his paintings behind department store models, revealing to the world the early stages of his pop art style and his insightful take on consumerism. The paintings were based on comic book strips and newspaper advertisements, and the stylishly dressed mannequins in front played directly with the idea of art as advertising.

Unlike artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Raushenberg, who chose not to use their real names for their window displays for fear of revealing their identities as gay men and also for fear of tarnishing their reputations as avant-garde artists, Andy Warhol proudly signed his name at the bottom of his window displays.  Jasper and Robert, who went by the collaborative name Maston Jones, decided against affiliating themselves with window dressing, which was considered somewhat effete, but Andy Warhol proudly owned his work and it ultimately worked in his favour. 

Not long afterwards Andy Warhol established himself as the successful pop artist we're familiar with today. Exhibiting his bold, typically ironic art regularly, he created an inclusive family where no one was judged for their unconventional lifestyle choices. He created a universe which would change the way we appreciate art and the artist forever and he did it all with an air of grace and generosity. Thanks to Gene Moore and his keen eye with his direction at Bonwitt Teller, Andy Warhol and his avant-garde contemporaries were able to experiment with their practice, early in their careers and in front of a large audience and it is likely the reason that for Warhol, success really was a job in New York. 

Adman: Warhol before pop is among the most comprehensive exhibitions dedicated to Andy Warhol's early career ever assembled. It includes over 300 objects, many on public display for the first time. Make sure you see it before it closes on May 28th. You can buy tickets here.