“Andy Warhol – from A to B and back again”: A Spotlight on Mass Media, Celebrity Culture and Consumerism

By Mariya Gilani


In the future, everyone will have fifteen minutes of fame.”
― Andy Warhol


The Whitney’s retrospective is Andy Warhol’s first in nearly three decades, yet he has been with us throughout it all – Calvin Klein t-shirts, Converse trainers, colouring books and more; proving that the well-known, Pope of Pop, is as iconic as the brands he constantly eternalised. Warhol’s oeuvre, including paintings, sketches, films and video, is spread across three floors, set out chronologically. When walking around the space it feels like following a roadmap throughout his artistic life, making stops at each artwork. The exhibit brings together three hundred and fifty of his works, from well-known stacked Brillo soap pad boxes to personal sketches of friends and love interests.  The show is a celebration of Warhol’s incredible artistic talent, a true master of all forms of art.


Warhol’s art is ubiquitous, and his iconic screen-printed images are synonymous with Pop art. He brought low art subjects and forms to high art status, ultimately, breaking barriers between high art and popular culture. Warhol was one of the most successful commercial illustrators in New York City before becoming the King of Pop Art. He already knew how to manipulate popular taste and knew the visual vocabulary of mass culture. Warhol successfully brought everyday objects such as: Brillo pads, Campbell soup cans, and Coca-Cola bottles to life. Interestingly, Warhol created his own rags-to-riches tale as he broke barriers for himself, reaching the echelons of high society – he became a popular icon and a brand. This brought a new sense of fame to the role of an artist not known before. Warhol viewed himself as a “deeply superficial person”, although this may ring true as he prioritised money and fame, Warhol’s work makes deeper comments on the effects of popular culture and mass-consumerism.


On viewing this retrospective, it is interesting to note that the people surrounding me were from all walks of life. There were no clear determining factors to pinpoint a Warhol fan, everyone seemed both intrigued and immersed and/or snapping away with smartphones. Senior curator of the exhibition and personal acquaintance of Warhol, Donna De Salvo, hopes the exhibition will attract the younger generation: “In an age of Instagram and so many other social media platforms, Warhol’s famous statement ‘everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’—which is probably now 15 seconds—rings incredibly true.” This retrospective puts things into perspective for all generations, particularly the Instagram age. The aesthetics of the exhibition itself automatically make it a social media hotspot, myself guilty of this indulgence.


Warhol’s relevance in this digital age is undeniable as the consumption of digital images continues to invade our lives. Social media proves to be a significant factor in the changing face of popular culture since it has allowed people to personally engage with images through celebrity endorsements and social media posts. Digital images have become more idealised and the models more idolised. When taking a deeper look into Warhol’s art and the digital age it is remarkable to note that the colourful screen-prints set out in grids are all reminiscent of our own social media apps, particularly Instagram feeds. The heavily edited photos suggestive of photoshopped content and images that surround us daily. There was one particular mass-produced, screen-printed, severely-edited iconic painting I was eager to reach. The subject a modern-day influencer in her own right, despite her death fifty-six years ago.


Standing in front of the ‘Marilyn Diptych’ by the Andy Warhol can only be described as sublime. It was a transcendent experience but not in the way you think. The experience cannot be labelled as profound but only eye-opening and affirming. All my knowledge on the subject came together as I noticed all the imperfections and perfections. Yet, I felt knowingly detached. This feeling cleverly constructed by Warhol’s cool and impersonal response to Marilyn Monroe’s death. The grid guides us through a mechanically-produced printing of her life using an iconic photo the audience, then and now, would be familiar with. A black-and-white publicity photo, taken in 1953 for her film Niagara. This face Warhol presents is a mere mask of her celebrity profile. Every depiction of Marilyn uses dramatically shifting colours and shadows; her ghostly appearance indicative of her death. Her striking yet garish purple made-up face reminded me of an embalmed corpse. This contrasted with the lighter tones of her faces on the far right, it was like she was disappearing before me. I became increasingly aware of the fact that I did not rely on free thought and feeling to view this image but followed the repetiton blindly.


Warhol alludes to the saint-like nature of celebrities through the holy diptych format and invites us to mass worship the dead starlet. Each viewer is engaged in the world-wide obsession. Marilyn, a sex symbol, immortalised through her films, photoshoots and appearances, is preserved in this diptych. However, many viewers around me confused this painting as a shrine, celebrating her beauty and her fame; all commenting on her beauty and how ‘sad and tragic’ her untimely death occurred. Personally, I don’t see Marilyn Monroe when I look at the painting, I see Norma Jean Baker, a manufactured star with a made-up name killed by the pressures of stardom, under the guise of an overdose.


This diptych, like the rest of the retrospective, becomes more than just a celebration of Monroe’s or Warhol’s iconic status, but an invitation for us to consider the consequences of the increasing role of mass media in our everyday lives. These notions Warhol presented in the 1960s, still ring true in this day and age. Warhol’s work may not be formally contemporary but the ideas surrounding it certainly are.


‘Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again’ is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 31 March 2019.


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