The number of artists who are household names is vanishingly small. But near the top of this list is a first-generation American born in Pittsburgh to a blue-collar family of Slovakian immigrants: Andrew Warhola, aka Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Warhol was a prime mover of Pop Art, and though he didn’t invent the genre, he possessed a unique insight into its implications, due partly to his own story.
Warhol came of age just as the WASP elite that had held the country in its grip since the days of the founders was being pushed aside for a meritocracy led primarily by the offspring of formerly marginalized ethnic groups from southern and eastern Europe—people, in other words, like him. Consciously or not, in his work he intuited how these changes reflected the displacement of high art by the divertissements of comic books, movies, television, and advertising. He also connected the centrifugal dynamic of this new egalitarianism to late capitalism, recognizing how both destabilized conventional hierarchies of wealth and status. (He once said of Coca-Cola, “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”)
In other words, he foresaw our current neoliberal order. He likewise anticipated the disposable nature of our social media–addled present (“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”) and the triumph of money as the final arbiter of quality (“Business is the best art”).
Warhol’s adopted persona as a bewigged enigma could be construed, perhaps, as both a reenactment of the social transformations noted above and a shrewd strategy. (“I learned that you actually have more power when you shut up” is how he put it.) But his cosplaying also constituted a sort of hiding in plain sight, best summed up in Warhol’s most famous remark about himself: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
So, while his biographical details are concrete enough, Warhol remains a cipher.