Warhol Month event review: Drips, Beats and Pop – Warhol in the context of his time, by Joanna Straczowski

By - Tuesday 10th October, 2017

A beautiful Cinders? A blood-sucking Dracula? Who was the real Andy Warhol?

Photo author’s own.

The sickly second son of Slovakian immigrants; an artist whose first commission was drawing shoes for a fashion magazine; a self-styled virgin, claiming to have never had sex and yet treated at least once for a sexually transmitted disease: Andrew Warhola was many things in his time. As Andy Warhol, he achieved a level of fame/notoriety unparalleled before or indeed since, and pretenders to his throne such as Damien Hirst would cheerfully sell their diamond-encrusted souls to attain such levels of glory/shame. But he started in New York as a graphic designer, eagerly knocking the dust of home-town Pittsburgh from his shoes as he sought to find his way as an artist.

Warhol expert Joanna Straczowski, from the stage at the Spread Eagle pub theatre, took us on a re-tracing of Warhol’s pop art path from 1950 to the mid-1970s as part of Croydon’s Warhol Month, which took place in the town centre throughout September. From Germany via the university of Liverpool, with an unneeded apology for her lack of familiarity with some of the peculiarities of the English language, Joanna was clearly a fan as well as a student. Her enthusiasm was always evident but never overwhelmed her objectivity. And her lecture, ‘Drips, Beats and Pop’, or more appropriately, ‘Drips, Beats and Punk’, looked both at his influences and those things he influenced.

Warhol was always an outsider. Socially awkward, it’s most likely that he would have sat somewhere on the spectrum of autism. Even amongst the clique of artists with which he rubbed shoulders during the early years he was barely tolerated, even, in the case of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, positively loathed. But then, Pollock was a ‘man’s man’ in the Hemingway mould, hard-drinking and womanising, whereas the homosexual Warhol was just too ‘swish’. Worse, he was celebrated for his commercial art. Other artists ‘lowered themselves’ to create work to order for advertising and so on, but used pseudonyms to ‘protect the integrity of their art’. Warhol used his own name, and won prizes.

We’d drawn a little closer to a man who kept people at a distance

Image author’s own.

And throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, from abstract expressionism to pop art via the beat generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, Warhol continued to use his name, building a brand. It’s not really Warhol’s art that is innovative and new. Quite the reverse. His art is derivative. From pictures of Coke bottles to photographs of Marilyn Monroe and prints of Campbell’s soup cans, he takes a subject and repackages it. There is an argument to be made that Warhol is less an artist and far more a superlative marketer, drawing on his commercial background. He dabbled with the major movements of the time but never fully immersed himself in them, so as they fell away, replaced by the next big thing, Warhol had already moved on, reading the market and looking towards the future. His core brand strength ensured his continued success, the awkward boy now feted by the great and the good (and not so good).

Undoubtedly he would have loved the dizzying whirl of today’s social media circus. He loved fame and glamour and wealth. When he met with British punk rock band The Clash in the late seventies he declared its members cute (if possessed of dubious dental care) but was horrified at their negative attitude toward the rich (their policy of ensuring that records were always within the financial reach of fans left the Clash in debt to its record company for years). Warhol’s own involvement with punk had been with the New York scene starting with, famously, the Velvet Underground, but the two movements, separated by more than just the Atlantic, were very different in attitude.

Warhol absorbed the ideas of others, using their talent for his own purposes

Warhol was nicknamed ‘Drella’, an attempt by those who knew him to describe his nature. The ‘ella’ came from ‘Cinderella’, summing up the sweetness and charm that he could, when called upon, bestow upon his coterie of friends. But the ‘Dr’ was taken from the arch-vampire, ‘Dracula’. Warhol, whether deliberately or subconsciously, took from those around him: absorbed their ideas, used their talent, re-moulded it to his own purposes. He was even shot because of it. But it was simply an extension of what he did on the wider scale, taking what the world gave, refashioning it and selling it back. In doing so, he changed the art world forever. For all the influences that he experienced, the greatest was his own.

So the evening closed, the echoes of ’80s New York replaced by those of twenty-first century Croydon. ‘Punk’ t-shirt clad Joanna, the ‘fan-girl’ with the Warhol poster on the wall at home, had never been less than engaging, with a perpetual hint of a smile that often blossomed to a grin. If she hasn’t quite learned to ‘hold’ a room yet, it will come. And importantly, we all went away a little closer to a man who spent so much of his life keeping people at a distance.

Paul M Ford

Paul M Ford

Writing, singing, acting, stand-up comedy, not to mention banking and marketing, Paul has not so much followed a career path as leapt blind-fold into a dodgem car and headed down life’s highway, probably against the flow of traffic. With a fascination for history and a seemingly anachronistic sense of fair play, he’s a born-again Coulsdonian, who wants people to realise that a vision for a better Croydon should extend beyond a half-mile radius of the Whitgift Centre…

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  • David White

    Warhol Month was a great thing for Croydon. Congratulations to all involved in it.