Wonderful World of Warhol: Why You Need to See The Andy Warhol Exhibit in SFMOMA

  • February 20, 2018

By the 1960s, the silver haired artist known as Andy Warhol was already a fixture in the art scene. Coming into prominence after working up the advertising ladder in the 1940s and early 50s, Warhol’s pop culture, mixed media creations of celebrity faces and glamorized versions of mundane items struck a chord with a world obsessed with Hollywood. Who can forget his famed 1963 series Campbell’s Soup Cans, which established him in pop culture? Considered a turning point in his career, the style of “repetition and reproduction” became apparent after this series. Beyond his colorful vocation in painting, Warhol also boasted an industrious career in sculpting, photography and experimental motion pictures. His image is best remembered as a man with a messy hairdo of long silver streaks, frequenting parties in hot night clubs such as Studio 54 with the likes of infamous showbiz names like ballet dancer/playboy Mikhail Baryshnikov and groundbreaking supermodel Grace Jones.

It is still debatable who Andy Warhol was as a man.  Hearsay intimated an idea of his true character. In the city of San Francisco, the Museum of Modern Art tells its own tale of Warhol. The collection of his visual artworks begins with the early pre-icon years and ends with the iconic works of popular culture. The curated pieces provide a timeline of Warhol’s growth as an artist. Different accounts tell legends of his madness. SFMOMA puts these aside and allows us to get lost in his genius, witholding judgment to allow an enjoyment of the works that started a movement in the visual arts. It is a worthy stop for anyone in the Golden City.

Boy from Pittsburgh

Born in Pittsburgh to immigrant parents from Slovakia, Warhol began his career as a prolific commercial illustrator. In the late 1940s, he gained a positive reputation for his cartoon-ish drawing style. Shoe brands like Israel Miller were impressed by his whimsical creations, eventually hiring him as a designer for the company. By the 1950s, the 20-something-year-old began to embrace his vision, and struck out on his own. He began exhibiting at galleries in New York City. Subjects such as fame, celebrity, glamour, consumer culture and reproduction were more evident in his works.

He developed his “blotted line” technique and was one of the early champions for silk-screening and printmaking. The Pittsburg boy found a clientele, which included Hollywood movie stars, wealthy socialites, bohemians and drag queens. When the era came to a close, he was a hot commodity, launching his New York City studio known as The Factory. The Factory would later grow into a melting pot of personalities, which included radicals and hippies of the 1960s.

Before and After, 1961
Before and After, 1961


Pre-Campbell’s Soup

The SFMOMA’s collection of Andy Warhol works are displayed front and center in the building’s fifth floor exhibit. Other iconic artists like Frida Kahlo and Roy Liechtenstein each occupy a wall around him, although Warhol’s gallery occupies much of the space. It begins along the corridors with his 1961 work Before and After. Fresh from his stint in commercial drawing, this piece was based on a small advertisement he saw in the National Enquirer in April 1961. First exhibited on the window of Bonwit Teller Department store on Fifth Avenue, it reflects his humble beginnings in the industry, with an almost advertisement-like feel to it. It also marks the first time Warhol used the silkscreen technique, which many art critics believe he pioneered. The black-and-white illustration of the same face has two different noses. It implies that the left-hand side is a woman before a nose job, and on the right is the woman after her beautification. It captures one of the artist’s signature obsessions with glamour in an offbeat way.

Silver Marlon
Silver Marlon
Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)
Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)


The “Silver Marlon” is another featured artwork. This painting illustrates the beginning of Warhol’s obsession with celebrities, finding his subject in Academy Award winner Marlon Brando in the film 1949 The Men, which made him a Hollywood heavyweight. Similarly, “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” from 1963 follows the same style as the former. The monochromatic piece is one of the largest in size from the SFMOMA’s collection. It shows the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll sporting a cowboy-like outfit, drawing a pistol towards the audience. Both donated by GAP Clothing Store founders and art collectors Donald and Doris Fisher, these works aren’t only notable for Warhol’s use of celebrities, but also his duplication style, which set him apart from other contemporary artists.

Pop Goes His Heart

The mid-1960s found The Factory in full swing. His prominence was rising due to his cast of Warhol Superstars and other New York City eccentrics promoted by Warhol. These artists, celebrities and socialites hung around Warhol, supporting him and his vision through collaboration or financial aid. In return, he cemented their names and images in history by immortalizing them in his artworks. It was during this time when he coined the phrase “15 minutes of fame.” He was quoted to have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” This began a frenzy among the Manhattan crowd, making Warhol a sought after artist.

Jackie Triptych, 1964
Jackie Triptych, 1964


In 1964, an exhibit known as The American Supermarket became a turning point in his career. Many controversial artists were asked to produce works that would capture consumerism in daily American life. Artists such as Robert Watts and Billy Apple also participated, but their works would not resonate with pop culture as much as Warhol’s series of 32 “Campbell’s Soup” silkscreen paintings. From here on, many of Warhol’s works began featuring splashes of color. It is evident in his “Jackie Triptych” piece. The 1964 portrait of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy has shades of the Warhol works we are familiar with today. Jackie was done with a combination of acrylic paint, spray paint, and silkscreen ink on a linen canvas, and features three images of the recently widowed First Lady from the week her husband was assassinated. The colors of these images vary, from a rusty brown, deep blue, and grainy gray. Also at SFMOMA is a work from his reversal series created between 1979 and 1986. This time, it is numerous images of Marilyn Monroe entitled “Nine Marilyns” in multiple colors. Warhol is best associated with this series of paintings in popular culture.

Nine Marilyns
Nine Marilyns


Self Portraits and Homages to History

After an assignation attempt in 1968 by a radical feminist known as Valerie Solanas, Warhol kept relatively quiet in the 1970s art scene. Much of his works included commissioned portraits of the rich and famous. In this era, he did work for such figures such as Academy Award winner Liza Minnelli, former Beatle band member John Lennon, singers Diana Ross and Mick Jagger, Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife Empress Farah, and communist leader Mao Zedong. These years were also the night club years when Warhol would frequent Studio 54 and be in many late night scandals.

Puma Invader
Puma Invader
Self Portrait, 1986
Self Portrait, 1986


In the 1980s, he was criticized for being a commercial artist for commission. Warhol reached back down to his roots in commercial drawing. He finished his work “Puma Invader” (located near his early work “Before and After” at the museum, allowing viewers to compare and contrast), which is reminiscent of his illustrated shoe work back in the 1940s. Before his death in 1987 from cardiac dysrhythmia after a failed gallbladder surgery, Warhol released a series of self-portraits, available for viewing at the museum. These works done in 1986 may lack the life and color from his more playful years, although it still possesses the same strangeness and quirkiness for which the artist is known. Messy hair stands are accompanied by a stoic facial expression that captures his genius. His is a genius no one may fully understand, but who can still fascinate art lovers many years after his passing.


By Chino R. Hernandez