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10 Reasons That Warhol Matters

07/12/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

1. Warhol is one of the most well-known 20th-century artists (and in this sense, he exists in the same realm as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp. And he is arguably America's best-known artist. One can measure this easily via Google hits, publications available on Amazon, the number of words spent discussing him and his work, and how easily he and his work can be recognized by the man on the street.

2. Warhol is considered one of the two (with Picasso) most influential artists of the 20th century. Which is to say Warhol was a primary influence on the work of several generations of national and international artists -- both those traditionally categorized as "fine" artists, but also photographers, filmmakers, musicians and fashion designers, who have, since the 1960s, risen to prominence -- and also those who have not. For example, in reference to artists of the 1970s and 1980s, Phoebe Hoban, biographer of Jean-Michel Basquiat, explains: "Warhol became the white-wigged Wizard of Oz to legions of art students; his famous career a grail to every MFA and struggling downtown artist-in-residence."

3. There's a Warhol for everyone. Unlike most artists of the 20th century (or history for that matter), Warhol worked in great depth (and did not simply dabble) in many different forms of media. For example, in addition to being a pop painter (as he is still characteristically known by most of the population), Warhol was, in the words of film theorist and writer Peter Wollen:

A filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a band-leader (if that's the word to characterize his involvement with the Velvet Underground), a TV soap opera producer, a window designer, a celebrity actor and model, an installation artist, a commercial illustrator, an artist's book creator, a magazine editor and publisher, a businessman of sorts, a stand-up comedian of sorts, an exhibition curator, a collector and archivist, the creator of his own carefully honed celebrity image, and so on... Warhol, in short, was what we might loosely call a 'Renaissance man,' albeit a Pop or perhaps post-modern Renaissance man.

Warhol was not just capable in other mediums but highly accomplished in them. For example, his book, a: A Novel has been called "among the ten greatest books of the 60s," and his extended film portraits (such as Henry Geldzahler, Poor Little Rich Girl and Beauty #2) have been called "among the most extraordinary films in the history of cinema."

4. Warhol's oeuvre is a significant history of the second half of the 20th century. To quote the art historian Robert Rosenblum:

Warhol's art is itself like a March of Time newsreel, an abbreviated visual anthology of the most conspicuous headlines, personalities, mythic creatures, edibles, tragedies, artworks, even ecological problems of recent decades. If nothing were to remain of the years from 1962 to 1987 but a Warhol retrospective, future historians and archaeologists would have a fuller time capsule to work with than that offered by any other artist of the period. With infinitely more speed and wallop than a complete run of the New York Times on microfilm, or even twenty-five leather bound years of Time magazine (for which he did several covers), Warhol's work provides an instantly intelligible chronicle of what mattered most to people, from the suicide of Marilyn Monroe to the ascendancy of Red China, as well as endless grist for the mills of cultural speculation about issues ranging from post-Hiroshima attitudes towards death and disaster to the accelerating threat of mechanized, multiple-image reproduction to our still-clinging, old-fashioned faith (both commercial and aesthetic) in handmade, unique originals.

5. As is well known, Warhol was responsible for the rise of pop art. Along with other artists, most notably Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist (as well as the dealers, art writers and others who distributed and promoted their work). Pop was responsible for dethroning abstract expressionism (as the most significant avant-garde American art movement) in the early 1960s.

6. Warhol's foregrounding of himself as an artist-machine, and his Factory for making art, has been revolutionary for contemporary artists, such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. While Warhol literalized and visualized what other artists like Frank Stella had suggested previously, he pushed far beyond the preceding popular notion of modernist artistic authorship, generally associated with the abstract expressionists, who emphasized the originality of the autographic touch and a romance with old emblems of solitude like the isolated studio. Warhol's new definition of the artist was much more like a fashion designer or designer of other products, where the product is linked, not physically, but conceptually to the originator. Steven Watson, author of Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, explains:

Previous to the Factory, authorship was rarely at issue. But the trove of mid-1960s Factory work blurred the frontier between subject and author. Warhol's role remained ambiguous. Did he direct the Factory movies? Did he write the novel a? Did he produce the Velvet Underground's first album? In the usual meaning of those active verbs, Andy Warhol did none of these. Yet each product bears his imprint and would have been impossible without him.

Even after his days at the Factory, Warhol continued to push at the boundaries of individual authorship, completing thousands of works in which his involvement was questionable, but also engaging in collaborative works with other artists, particularly in the 1980s -- the most notable of which was with Jean-Michel Basquiat. This collaboration, which spanned more than two years, resulted in the creation of hundreds of works and was one of the most unprecedented collaborations in the history of art -- for it comprised two artists who gained fame in different eras (the 60s and the 80s); who were of different races (black and white, or Haitian-Puerto Rican and Ruthenian); who were of different sexual orientations (gay and straight); who came from different socioeconomic backgrounds and who were competing with each other in the 80's art marketplace.

7. Warhol's charismatic yet enigmatic "naïf-trickster" personality was quite new to the art world. Though there were artistic precedents (Picasso and Salvador Dali, among others) as well as artists in the 1960s who "potently" employed such personae -- according to Kelly M. Cresap, author of Pop Trickster Fool: Warhol Performs Naivete, compared to Warhol, the others were "more decipherable, more pragmatic, or more intermittent about it," and "of all, Warhol's [was and] remains the most enigmatic and fecund." Stephen Koch, author of the first book on Warhol's life and films, explains the rise of Warhol as the rise of a new type of art world authority. He explains:

Warhol [was] among the great masters of passive power. Although it proclaimed its independence at every opportunity, the youth culture of the Sixties was by and large composed of very dependent people who couldn't bear to face that fact... In his passive presence, security and recognition seemed to make no demands. Warhol dominated all, while seeming merely to look on. Sweetly and shyly, in the language of a five year old, he could make or break at will. As with a monarch, proximity to the famous presence was everything. And just as Warhol could bestow that presence, he could also take it away. Put it this way: Warhol became famous by ceasing to be a person and becoming instead a presence. He became a phenomenon; the phenomenon Andy Warhol, who in his muteness and passivity seemed to be a being without needs. One gazed at that liberation, weirdly fascinated. 'I still care about people,' he said, 'but it would be so much easier not to care... It's too hard to care. I don't really believe in love.'

Warhol's "naïf-trickster" personality -- and in particular his enigmatic autobiographical ramblings -- helped to make his work more significant, because it made his work more intriguing. For example, Warhol's comment, "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," has pushed critics consistently back to the work to search for further meanings and relationships between what Warhol said and his work.

8. Warhol's deft and constant use of the media was a major change for the art world. Before Warhol -- in the 1940s and 1950s, as Robert Hughes explains:

Publicity had not been an issue... It might come as a bolt from the philistine blue, as when Life made Jackson Pollock famous; but such events were rare enough to be freakish, not merely unusual. By today's standards, the art world was virginally naïve about the mass media and what they could do. Television and the press, in return, were indifferent to what could still be called the avant-garde. "Publicity" meant a notice in The New York Times, a paragraph or two long, followed eventually by an article in Art News, which perhaps five thousand people would read. Anything else was regarded as extrinsic to the work -- something to view with suspicion, at best an accident, at worst a gratuitous distraction. One might woo a critic, but not a fashion correspondent, a TV producer, or the editor of Vogue. To be one's own PR outfit was, in the eyes of the New York artists of the Forties or Fifties, nearly unthinkable -- hence the contempt they felt for... Dali.

With Warhol, all of this changed as art (as he liked to say) turned into art business and he manipulated the mass media. Warhol understood the media's cult of personality, and he capitalized on it through his incredible ability to attract attention, or by being, in the words of curator Kynaston McShine, in all the right places at all the right times. Warhol was with all the right people at all the right times, and he even said the perfect catchy thing at all the right moments.

9. Warhol's significance can be argued even further. His exhibition, "The Personality of the Artist," at Eleanor Ward's The Stable Gallery -- of his Brillo, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Del Monte Peach Halves and Mott's Apple Juice boxes -- was one of the most significant art exhibitions of the 1960s and possibly of the last 50 years. Philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has famously called it "the foundation for philosophical aesthetics in the second half of this century." Warhol was also -- with Robert Rauschenberg -- one of the first artists to use silkscreens often in his art practice. And through his 1970s production, he is credited, most notably by Rosenblum as:

Succeeding virtually single-handedly... in resurrecting from near-extinction that endangered species of grand-style portraiture of people important, glamorous, or notorious enough -- whether statesmen, actresses, or wealthy patrons of the arts -- to deserve to leave their human traces in the history of painting.

10. Finally, Warhol is considered by many to have dramatically "helped increase the repertory of moves admissible in the art world, [especially] 'swishiness' and homoeroticism."' According to his biographers Victor Bockris and Wayne Koestenbaum, this was an idea that Warhol believed in and helped enforce (though it was not at all evident to some). For example, Bockris writes: "Andy was going to denigrate the concept of heterosexual coupling as the be-all and end-all of sex and present homosexuality as a normal practice." And in the words of Koestenbaum: "Warhol's decision to become a painter in the first place was an attempt to queer the Pollock myth --to prove that art stardom was a swish affair."