Andy Warhol’s work is like a joke: Either you get it or you don’t. For some, Warhol (1928-1987) represents the death of art, proof of our culture’s vacuity and the spiraling decline of Western Civilization. For others, though, Warhol was nothing short of a genius, thanks to his apparently sincere guilelessness and complete lack of judgment about the world around him, using his prints, paintings, and sculptures as vehicles for the things he and the rest of us were actually most interested in. Thus, his paintings of electric chairs and car wrecks reflected our infatuation with death and violence, the portraits of Marilyn and Elvis our idolatry of celebrities, and all those prints of all those soup cans were meant to elevate the lowest-common-denominator products of our consumer society to the lofty realms of fine art.
In his prime, Warhol aspired to producthood himself, blurring the line between his work and his life. Paving the way for the likes of Jeff Koons and Banksy, Andy Warhol was the artist as brand, making explicit the practice of artists from Jackson Pollock to Mark Rothko to make names and careers for themselves via signature styles. Warhol had his signature style, too (swaths of color screenprinted over photographs), but for Warhol, the branded appearance of his art was ostensibly more important than its subject. Naturally, this caused art-world elites great distress. Just as naturally, Andy Warhol appeared unmoved by their complaints.
Which is not to say Warhol’s art was devoid of content. His Flowers series from 1964 pushed against our expectations of what the reproductive organs of plants should look like, rendering them in flat, industrial hues—if you are a fan of lascivious representations of stamens and petals ala Georgia O’Keeffe, you will not find them in a Warhol. On the other hand, his Dollar Signs from the early 1980s are probably the most cheerful and exuberant representations of filthy lucre ever created, as well as being a not-so-subtle commentary on the art market—if the art world is simply a means for rich people to hang testaments to their wealth on their walls, Warhol’s Dollar Signs are happy to oblige.