Andy Adman: Why Andy Warhol was unashamed about his advertising career in 1950s New York

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WARHOL-before-POP.jpgGawen Rudder, principal of The Knowledge Consultancy, Sydney reminds us that Andy Warhol was never ashamed of his first career as an advertising illustrator.

Like the oft-maligned Ken Done perhaps, Andy Warhol was unashamed about his advertising background. At one point he said, “The commercial and the fine art are intermingled and kind of feed into each other all the way through my career.”

Born of Slovakian immigrants, Ondrej Warhola hit New York in 1949 to pursue a career in adland after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in pictorial design. But just as copywriters dream of becoming acclaimed authors, Andy the commercial artist dreamt of becoming a fine artist.

His first work appeared in Glamour magazine, drawing cartoons of women climbing corporate ladders, for an article preciently titled: ‘Success is a job in New York’. During the fifties he became one of the most successful illustrators in the city. Advertising in NYC had come into its own with expenditure soaring to record levels, and Warhol was among the highest paid freelancers of his time, sought after by agencies for luxe brands such as Tiffany & Co, I. Miller and Dior. He won numerous awards from the famed Art Directors Club. His work for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Vogue appealed to high-end clients who wanted their brands associated with witty, arty values.

As a Y&R creative at the time gushed, “It’s not the ingredients that sell the product. It’s how Warhol makes you feel about the product.” His drawings of women’s shoes were impossibly sleek and slim, and echoed his fixation on feet.

The Art Gallery of NSW ‘Adman’ exhibition features over 300 works, from record covers to sanitary napkins, a collection of fetishist sketches and assorted homoerotica, plus reproductions of his shop-front window displays for Fifth Avenue retailer Bonwit Teller (whose lavish art deco building was later demolished to make way for today’s Trump Tower.) Comparisons can be odious, but he did have an extensive selection of unusual hair pieces and spoke in a staccato tweet-like manner.

eight-elvises-eight-1963-andy-warhol.jpegWhile other artists were moonlighting on Madison Avenue and using pseudonyms to avoid the taint of commerce, Warhol brazenly added his name to his early ads – anticipating perhaps his ‘Fifteen minutes of fame.’ He achieved this and more, with his 60s silver silkscreen ‘Eight Elvises’, fetching US$100.5 million in 2009.

The man who emerges from the Sydney exhibition had business smarts and a flair for the art of persuasion. As he once said, “An artist is someone who produces things that people don’t need to have, but that he – for some reason – thinks it would be a good idea to give them.” Spoken like a true adman.

The seeds of Warhol’s future as a fine artist – best remembered for his soup can and pop star images – were sown during his time in adland. However, “I was always a commercial artist,” he said shortly before his death in 1987, aged 58.

Adman: Warhol Before Pop is at the Art Gallery of NSW until this Sunday, May 28.