A new exhibition explores Warhol as a commercial artist before he became a pop icon.

In June 1949, a week after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Art, 20-year old Andy Warhol arrived in New York from Pittsburgh. Within a few months he had his first commission, illustrating an article for Glamour magazine. Not long afterwards, Columbia Records asked him to illustrate an album cover for “a programme of Mexican music”, recorded to complement an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Columbia had introduced the first LP record just the year before and so to illustrate one of their covers was quite a coup, particularly for such a young artist.

Philip Pearlstein: Andy Warhol in NYC, c1949

Warhol had landed in New York just as the advertising industry was evolving exponentially. “This was the immediate pre-Mad Men era. Many of the great innovations in advertising were made in the 1950s, so it was an incredible moment to arrive and Warhol managed to build an impressive roster of clients quite rapidly,” says Nicholas Chambers, Senior Curator, Modern and Contemporary International Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Among them were magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s, leading department stores including Tiffany’s and Bonwit Teller, and shoe manufacturer I. Miller, for whom Warhol produced a weekly ad for The New York Times featuring a drawing of a shoe.

“By the late 1950s, he was earning around half a million dollars a year in today’s dollars,” says Chambers. “While it’s not widely acknowledged, Warhol’s extraordinary successes as a commercial artist set the scene for his subsequent rise as an icon of pop art.”

The new exhibition, called Adman: Warhol Before Pop, was developed collaboratively by the highly-regarded Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh and the AGNSW and explores Warhol’s formative years as an artist.

Curated by Chambers, it features over 300 objects from The Andy Warhol Museum including drawings, prints, photographs, advertisements, album covers, artist sketchbooks and even the recreation of two of Warhol’s perfume displays for department store windows. Many of the works have never been publicly displayed before.

Andy Warhol: Billy Holiday Vol 3, 1950s

The seeds for the show were sewn when Sydney-born Chambers worked at The Andy Warhol Museum between 2012 and 2014, immediately before joining the AGNSW.

“The Warhol museum is the largest single-artist museum in the United States. It’s an extraordinary collection. When Warhol died in 1987, the Andy Warhol Foundation was set up, and among various other things, it helped establish the museum and gifted the majority of the collection,” says Chambers. “The Warhol’s collection includes around 10,000 artworks in addition to an archive of over half a million objects. It’s a treasure trove. There are masterpieces from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s but the collection is particularly strong in works from the 1950s. And what’s interesting is that works from this early period include not only commercial assignments but also materials relating to his first ‘fine art’ exhibitions – and that’s not a terribly well-known story.”

“The conventional wisdom is that Warhol’s first art show was of his famous  Campbell’s Soup Can paintings in 1962, but, in fact, he had numerous exhibitions in the 1950s. Our exhibition is about these interconnected careers, as ‘fine’ and ‘commercial’ artist,” says Chambers.

Warhol’s studied disregard for the traditional boundaries between the twin worlds of commercial and fine art tended to underpin his practice throughout his career. Though other pop artists did commerical work they used a pseudonym.

“In the 1980s, he produced music videos, he created print advertisements, and he was a celebrity who regularly appeared in the press and on TV – let’s not forget his appearance on [the television series] The Love Boat. Warhol always straddled two worlds – the world of the art and the world of consumer culture – and, in a certain sense, this was the truly radical aspect of his practice. I’d argue that the genesis of this approach to being an artist can be found in the ‘50s,” says Chambers.

Andy Warhol: Pair of Legs with Coca-Cola Bottle, c1956

Viewers will be able to see the beginning of ideas, explored in his later work. There’s an early drawing of a Coca-Cola bottle, for example. “There are also techniques that Warhol first uses in ‘50s commercial assignments, such as the blotted line, which is a form of monoprint… and a kind of a precursor to the way he used the silk screen in the 1960s,” says Chambers.

“Having said that, [the exhibition] reveals an entirely different Warhol than the one people are familiar with. One of the things that I think audiences will find particularly surprising when they look at his ‘50s work is what an incredible draftsman Warhol was. An entirely different set of influences spring to mind – Cocteau, Matisse and Picasso, not artists what one typically associates with Warhol. The exhibition offers a surprising view of one of the great artists of our time; it’s a backstory that’s not widely known.”

Adman: Warhol before Pop is at the Art Gallery of NSW until May 28. All images here are © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.


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