warhol before pop: discover andy’s pre-factory life

A new exhibition shines a light on the artist's award winning commercial work in the 1950s, the decade before Pop.

by Briony Wright
28 February 2017, 4:10am

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.

For one of the most well-known figures of the 21st Century, Andy Warhol's early years are relatively overlooked. Conversation about the beginning of the artist's career tends to be cemented in the early 60s with the rise in production of his famous Pop Art and the establishment of The Factory, his infamous creative studio. A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales called Adman: Warhol before pop however, is squarely focussed on the decade prior, the 1950s, a decade during which a young Warhol moved to New York and naturally established himself as a successful commercial illustrator, in demand with high profile clients like Vogue and Glamour Magazine and Tiffany & Co.

Featuring over 300 pieces of original, largely unseen drawings, sourced from the archives of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the exhibition tells the story of a young artist with a distinctively whimsical style and an understanding of branding and advertising well ahead of his time. Working in the pre-Mad Men era of advertising in New York, Warhol was well known for his colourful and quirky illustrations for various clients. Arguably Warhol's most important, well known and lucrative commission during that time was a project he worked on for I. Miller shoes, which saw him create a large format ad, most often a drawing of a shoe, which was published in the The New York Times almost every Sunday between March 1955 and December 1959.

Adman: Warhol before pop documents the formative stages of the icon's career and charmingly identifies where it all began. It reveals an artist with an early, innate understanding that the creative and commercial spheres could co-exist. We spoke to Nicholas Chambers, the show's curator, about the rarities within and what they tell us about the life and career of Andy Warhol.

See: Photos of i-D's special preview party for Adman: Warhol before pop.

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

i-D: This is such a special show. Can you explain how it came to be?
Nicholas Chambers: Before starting at the AGNSW at the end of 2014, I was the curator of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The Warhol has a phenomenal collection and it's particularly strong in objects from the 1950s which also happens to be the period that has received the least attention from the museum sector. The profile of his Pop output just looms so large that it can obscure the significance of what came before. Adman gives the backstory - a whole decade prior to Warhol's first Pop Art show in 1962.

How did Andy Warhol actually arrive in advertising?
His career begins in 1949. Warhol is 20 and decides to relocate from Pittsburgh to New York, having just graduated with a degree from Carnegie Tech in Pictorial Design. He arrived in the city at an incredibly opportune time to pursue a career as a commercial illustrator - consumer culture was booming and alongside it the advertising industry was evolving very rapidly. His first opportunity came via Tina Fredericks, the art director of Glamour Magazine, who commissioned Warhol to illustrate an article, interestingly titled What is Success, with the by-line Success is a Job in New York. With this commission he established a charming and whimsical illustration style that was quite unique for the time. 

So people really responded to his style even at this early stage?
Yes, Warhol quickly managed to assemble an impressive roster of clients that included numerous leading brands in New York's fashion world. He worked on a freelance basis and was employed by magazines, clothing labels, department stores and the recording industry. Vinyl LPs were just taking off and he created numerous covers for RCA and Columbia Records. Of course, it's important to recognise that Warhol is also working on non-commercial, 'fine art', projects at the same time. He held numerous exhibitions in the 1950s, well before he held his 'Campbell's Soup Cans' exhibition in LA. Adman really looks at these two practices, of 'fine' and 'commercial' art, and the ways that they intersect and pollinate each other.

He really just 'got it' so far before everyone else. Would you say Andy Warhol was well on his way to becoming famous even in the 1950s?
Well, he was a very successful commercial illustrator early on, well known within the industry and awarded numerous industry accolades, some of which are in the show. By the mid-1950s he was financially relatively well-off and this certainly created a good platform for his entry into the world of Pop Art in the 1960s.

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

Looking even further back, Andy Warhol had an interesting childhood. Are there aspects of it that you can identify as leading to this stage of his career?
Warhol's parents were immigrants who arrived in the US as adults and struggled, understandably, with the English language. It's notable, however, that they identified their son's artistic bent and his mother, who was herself a folk artist, really encouraged Warhol's interest in art as a young boy. Andy was the youngest of three boys and his parents put aside money for him alone to go to art school so he had this great opportunity. His working class, immigrant background may have been a contributing factor to the incredible work ethic that he maintained throughout his life. He was also very close to his mother, Julia Warhola, who moved to New York to live with Andy until just before she died. In fact Julia was arguably Warhol's most important collaborator in the 1950s and contributed the distinctive script that appears on much of his commercial work at that time.

That's so interesting. Was there a sense of him having a scene or collective of creative friends in the 1950s as he did for a lot of his later career?
There was certainly a milieu of men involved in the design industries who he associated with. They were often window dressers, fashion photographers, designers or fellow commercial illustrators, professions in which many gay men were employed. This brings up another important theme of the exhibition - and that is the manner in which Warhol spoke quite openly about his sexual identity in numerous artworks in the 1950s. Being an openly gay man presented a real obstacle to acceptance from the art establishment at the time. As Warhol's friend Philip Pearlstein recalled, at one point in the 1950s Warhol presented a group of drawings of "boys kissing boys" to a gallery which were deemed "completely unacceptable". Nevertheless he managed to hold regular exhibitions and there was certainly an audience for his work.

Would you agree that points to a strong self confidence?
It's always difficult to characterise Andy Warhol's personality. In interviews he'd often, intentionally, contradict himself. I would say that there was an aspect of outsiderism that he self-consciously played up. There's also evidence that he spent considerable time thinking about his identity as a young man. When he was a child Warhol experimented with different variations on his name. He was born Andrew Warhola and the first time we see Andy Warhol written is in a portrait he made of a friend at school. There is an early piece in the exhibition signed Andrew Morningstar, which he later claimed almost became his professional pseudonym. However, soon after moving to New York, he settled on "Andy Warhol" and used it for both fine art and advertising work - a bold and brazen decision given that it was common for visual artists to use a pseudonym for commercial projects. But, as we know, Warhol was always very interested in the intersection between high and low culture, fine art and commercial art and this exhibition is where it all starts. 

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. The exhibition runs from 25 Feb - 28 May 2017. You can buy tickets here.


Text Briony Wright
Photography courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW

Andy Warhol
Art Gallery of NSW
warhol before pop