What subject could be more suited to Warhol in 1977 than the most popular car in the world? Five years earlier, the German Volkswagen Type 1, more commonly known to much of the English-speaking world as the 'Beetle,' had surpassed the 15,000,000 Ford Model Ts that had been produced and that had held the record for decade after decade. This small German car had, in theory, out-America-ed the United States of America. Indeed, the car's popularity (it was the best-selling car year on year for some time) in the USA itself, where foreign import cars seldom had the popularity of domestic brands, riled the American motor giants and even prompted Henry Ford II to refer jealously to it as 'a little shit box'...
In Volkswagen Beetles, executed in 1977, Warhol grants the Beetle a Pop apotheosis. The VW Beetle must have provided particular interest for Warhol because, as a car, it had character. This was evident both in its distinctive looks, and also in the cult that had grown around it. Unlike most cars, the Beetle was a celebrity in its own right-- all that is missing from the Beetles is the racing number '53' to make it a portrait not just of any old car, but of... Herbie. The use of the VW as the 'star' of the 1968 film, The Love Bug, and its many sequels meant that the Beetle uniquely straddled the worlds of mass-production (like Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell's soup cans) and superstardom (like Marilyn and Elvis).
The image in Volkswagen Beetles, shown in triplicate in bold, candy-coloured, colours, recalls in itself the factory production line that created the cars, and to which the artist consistently claimed to aspire: 'The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do' (Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 140). To him, this machine influence was to usher in a new, almost science fiction future reflected in the dazzling silver-clad walls of his famous Factory, his studio, meeting-place and the headquarters of the Warhol enterprise.
This sense of the mechanical, the gleaming industrial, reflected Warhol's interest in the increasing democratisation brought about by capitalism and by factories and by the modern, scientific age as a whole: 'I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should be like everybody. That seems to be what is happening now' (Warhol, quoted in Newsweek, 7 December 1964). With their interest in and reliance on machinery and industrial techniques, Volkswagen and the United States and Warhol all shared what could be best referred to as a Factory Aesthetic. For Volkswagen, America and Warhol, mass production was a shiny, mechanised means of introducing a sort of democracy. The name Volkswagen even meant 'people's vehicle.' This concept appears to be cut from some of the same cloth as Warhol's statement on his nation: 'The idea of America is so wonderful because the more equal something is, the more American it is' (Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne 2000, p. 54).
As always with Warhol, the surface gives only a limited amount of information. Looking at the repeated, disco-coloured images of the Beetle, is this a celebration of the factory age? Is it a taunt to the USA, with a foreign car shown? Was Warhol's oft-proclaimed love of business, machines and industry as sincere as he so often led people to believe? Unlike his later statements, which often used a deliberately simplified, faux-naïve language, Warhol once discussed one of his earliest Pop works, Storm Door, by explaining-- in words that could equally be applied to Volkswagen Beetles-- that it was 'a statement of the symbols of the harsh, impersonal products and brash materialistic objects on which America is built today. It is a projection of everything that can be bought and sold, the practical but impermanent symbols that sustain us' (Warhol, quoted in K. McShine, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York 1989, p. 458). Unlike the other statements made above, this comment is couched in terms that appear not wholly uncritical, begging the question: do Warhol's pictures celebrate or parody the increasingly depersonalised age of mass-production? Is this picture really the product of honest admiration at the economic phenomenon that was the Beetle, the artist doffing his cap to a product that reflected his own self-proclaimed ethos that 'making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art' (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and back again, San Diego, New York & London 1977, p. 92)? Or is Warhol attacking the soulless impersonality of our factory-churned-out world?
The Beetle merited Warhol's attention in part because it was, at the time, the most heavily-produced car ever, a miracle of industry and economics, an almost endemic feature on the roads of both Europe and the United States. However, the history of the Volkswagen Type 1 is itself ambiguous, doubtless adding to its appeal for Warhol, who was always ingenious rather than ingenuous with his choices of subject-matter despite his proclamations to the contrary. For this car, although already at the drawing-board stage some years earlier, was to come into production largely at the behest of Adolf Hitler, who commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to make a so-called 'people's car'-- or Volks-Wagen. In fact, the Second World War meant that the civilian version was not made in great numbers, though military variants saw action in several arenas during the conflict. At the end of the War, a British officer managed to salvage the bomb-damaged factory, and set it to work building cars following a commission from the British government that would come to help the economic reconstruction of post-War Germany. The name of the car was at this point changed from the original Nazi-era KdF-Wagen (the initials standing for 'Kraft durch Freude', or 'Strength through Joy') to Volkswagen. Just as Warhol's pictures of celebrities often drew their power from the fact that they had dark undercurrents of death and disaster, so too Volkswagon Beetles.
Even if Warhol had not been aware of this strange and turbulent history behind a car affectionately termed the Beetle, this historical background introduces a strange ambiguity that is perfectly suited to his mischievous and deliberately subversive streak. It adds a depth that again belies the superficiality to which he so often deceptively laid claim. The Beetle, as a victim and hero of history and of popular culture, was the perfect subject-matter for the master of Pop, but is made all the more so by the fact that it comprises so many paradoxes: despite its huge character, the repeated image of the most common car in the world highlights the impersonality of the machine age; its air of innocence is tainted by its history; and of course, Warhol's celebration of industry itself attacks all the received notions of art and originality. Can something so common be beautiful? Or is it precisely because it is so common that Warhol finds it beautiful? In a sense, the entire nature and purpose of Pop was to open the viewer's eyes to the wonders of the world of opportunity, design, advertising, technology and so forth that has been exploding around us for so many decades, placing the commonplace on a pedestal. Warhol's works are a key to an appreciation of the infinite variety of the consumer world in which we live. But at the same time, they appear to function in a cynical manner, slyly highlighting our own adulation of the trappings of life in the capitalist world. All these paradoxes ensure that this work remains both an undecided and opaque reflection of the complications of the commercial age in which we live and, at the same time, an open-hearted celebration of the famous and much-loved Beetle.