how andy warhol used store window displays to launch an art career

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

by Briony Wright
12 April 2017, 3:03pm

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, a large recreation of an early Andy Warhol store window display is on view at The Art Gallery of New South Wales's current exhibition, Adman: Warhol Before Pop. It's a rare piece that was produced by the budding artist in 1955 for high-end department store Bonwit Teller, to advertise a perfume called Mistigri by Jacques Griffe. Crafted from wooden panels, the installation features hand-scrawled cats, playing cards, and perfume bottles, arranged arbitrarily in 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 the numerous store-front windows Warhol created in the 50s. Before his Factory, he was a successful commercial artist in New York.

Andy Warhol. Bonwit Teller window display advertising Mistigri perfume. June 28, 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 Warhol, who was openly gay, there were even more obstacles (some galleries allegedly rejected his work as a form of protest). Undeterred, Warhol recognized that his lifestyle was accepted by the fashion and beauty communities, and wisely focused on these industry to forge the beginning of his career. Embraced by fashion designers and magazine editors, 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, 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 have proven to be well ahead of their time.

One way a number of promising artists of the era 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 oversized canvases for creative ideas. Warhol is one of a handful of artists remembered for his visionary work. Giving Warhol, and a number of his now well-known contemporaries, the opportunity to create these windows was an eccentric artist named Gene Moore. 

Moore 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 in 1945. Recognizing the potential of the store-front window, Moore sometimes commissioned emerging artists he admired to design windows for specific themes or products, but occasionally gave them the opportunity to exhibit their own work, entrusting them with pure creative freedom. In this way, he helped launch the art careers of, not only Warhol, but also Salvador Dalí, Sari Dienes, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and 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.

Dalí was one of the original artists to be hired by Bonwit Teller, and who instigated its era of creative collaboration. He created windows for the store in 1929 and again in 1939, decades before Warhol. For his latter window, Dalí 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 Dalí'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 Dalí 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 Johns and Rauschenberg — 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 — Warhol proudly signed his name at the bottom of his window displays. Johns and Rauschenberg, who went by the collaborative name Maston Jones, decided against affiliating themselves with window dressing, which was considered somewhat effete. But Warhol proudly owned his work and it ultimately worked in his favor. 

Not long afterwards, 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. Thanks to Moore and his keen eye with his direction at Bonwitt Teller, Warhol and his avant-garde contemporaries were able to experiment with their practices early in their careers and in front of a large audience. 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. 

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adman: warhol before pop
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