In 1967, Pop artist Andy Warhol launched his print publishing company Factory Additions. The enterprise was timely; the past five years had seen Warhol rise from graphic illustrator to silver-haired art star, celebrated for blurring the boundaries between high and low culture by making everyday objects seem beautiful and aspirational.
Having shocked the art world in 1962 with his silkscreen images of the supermarket favourite, Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol’s new venture was similarly egalitarian: Factory Additions would create prints on paper at different price points — something for everyone.
This reinforced his argument that the great thing about America was that the richest consumer bought the same things as the poorest. ‘A Coke is a Coke,’ he said, ‘and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.’
Over the next 20 years, until his death in 1987, Warhol produced limited-edition prints, often in series — among them Marilyn, Campbell’s Soup I and II and Flowers — working with some of the most talented printmakers in the country, among them Alexander Heinrici and Rupert Jasen Smith.
It could be argued that printing was central to the way Warhol saw the world: cold, flat, mechanical. In 1963 he had famously announced that he wanted ‘to be a machine’.
Yet the curator Donna De Salvo believes that printing was, in fact, Warhol’s metaphor for America, as seen through the eyes of a working-class kid with an immigrant’s admiration for his country’s commercial prosperity.
Screenprinting enabled Warhol to experiment with colour and repetition, facilitating an open and fluid approach to his subject matter. He magnified images, degraded and confused them. He took an object as chilling as an electric chair and replicated it in dazzling colour so that it lost its intrinsic horror.
In 1977 Rupert Jasen Smith became Warhol’s hard-working printer, introducing the artist to new stylistic devices including collage and diamond dust, and creating complex surfaces in the process.
Images would be scaled-up, transferred onto acetate and manipulated, before being sent to Smith with instructions on colour and how they should be printed. Multiple versions were made, and Warhol would select one to be editioned.
Ronald Feldman, who published many of Warhol’s most famous series in the 1980s, including Endangered Species, Myths and Ads, noted that the remaining, unused proofs were much loved by Andy. To solve the question of what to do with them, they put them into unique portfolios which they titled ‘trial proof portfolios’.
From the Factory at 860 Broadway, Warhol worked furiously, supervising his assistants and soliciting his friends for new ideas. His studio manager, Fred Hughes, said that Warhol would quiz everyone who came to the studio, from industry magnates to postal workers.
He had a talent for recognising the images that encapsulated the modern era. Some were perceived as shallow and inane, such as the Coca-Cola bottle or the cartoon character Mickey Mouse from his Myths series, but Warhol instinctively understood the power of such images.
Warhol was always a strategic hustler, and his most regular income came from the portrait commissions he secured. The list of faces he painted is long and varied, among them Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Paloma Picasso, Mick Jagger and Yves Saint Laurent.
Warhol claimed that, like his soup cans, these people were mere objects for making paintings and that he intended no comment on the character of any of his subjects.
In 1972, however, he made a series of portraits that would challenge that assertion. The Mao series mined the legend surrounding China’s leader, Mao Zedong — a man synonymous with absolute political and cultural power.
Both Warhol and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party understood the force that an image could exert over the masses and the power of myth-making.
‘I prefer to remain a mystery,’ Warhol said at the height of his fame. ‘I never like to give my background, and anyway I make it all up different every time I’m asked.’
‘Mao was a brilliant choice, and Andy’s timing was perfect,’ said the artist’s dealer Bruno Bischofberger, alluding to President Nixon’s then recent visit to China. He noted that the works were greeted with universal acclaim and ‘were all about power: the power of one man over the lives of one billion people’.
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The series also marked a fundamental shift in Warhol’s print production. Until that point, a painting had been made first, then prints were produced several years later. Now, prints were being produced concurrently — and sometimes even before the painting.
This radical experimentation continued until the artist died, at the age of 58, leaving behind a body of work vividly alive in saturated colours.
For all his denials of political engagement, Warhol couldn’t help democratising everything he touched and making it accessible to the public. His printmaking is testament to that.
As his studio assistant and friend Billy Name once said, ‘Warhol brought fine art back to popular culture. People wanted his images on their living-room wall because they recognised them as their own.’